Digital technology can provide huge advantages to businesses in town centres and other places if take-up and future opportunities can be properly understood. The Digital High Street Project aims to help place managers understand and improve the ways that local consumer-facing business are adopting digital technologies.
- Date: May 2018
- Local authority: Warwickshire County Council
- Submitted by: The People & Places Partnership in association with the Loughborough University and Warwickshire County Council.
Digital technology can provide huge advantages to businesses in town centres and other places if take-up and future opportunities can be properly understood. The Digital High Street Project aims to help place managers understand and improve the ways that local consumer-facing businesses are adopting digital technologies. The project has achieved this across Warwickshire towns and elsewhere by applying an innovative methodology. This involved using real-time big data sources grouped by using the 3 digital dimensions of skills, infrastructure and engagement tracked against the fourth dimension of town attractiveness. Future improvements can then be monitored and managed against this base-line of evidence.
Rather than an out-dated view that digital is simply a threat to town centre performance, it is important for councils and place managers to help gain an advantage by embracing it. Digital technology can provide huge advantages for local businesses if take-up and future opportunities can be properly understood.
This research project is a collaboration between Warwickshire County Council and Loughborough University’s Digital High Street Team. The project follows on from previous work with Department of Communities & Local Government and leading retailers in 2016. The aim of the project is to produce an evidence base which can be used to assess the impact of the adoption of digital technologies on towns in Warwickshire.
The vision for this project is to provide information, which can empower local communities through knowledge of how local consumer-facing businesses are adopting digital technologies. Also it aims to map the ‘digital real estate’ for county towns by providing details of the status of adoption of digital channels. This study uses an innovative methodology involving real-time big data sources, provided by the project’s supporters and collaborators. Its analysis produces results at a very precise level.
The work involves measuring key indicators of the economic performance of a place alongside those for digital activity using 4 dimensions:
- Town Attractiveness
Each dimension is made up of a subset of variables that can be monitored by using objective measures. Collectively this ‘SITE engine’ can determine the extent and type of digital business adoption within a town and also evaluate how physical aspects of the place might influence business development. The underlying rationale for this approach is that in order to understand a place, and the effect of the adoption of digital technologies, there needs to be a baseline measurement, to capture how a place is performing at a given point in time.
Sixteen Warwickshire towns are part of the study and the baseline evidence review was carried out during the week of 8th May 2017. This revealed that Warwickshire’s ‘digital real-estate in its towns’, which consists of the physical businesses in its towns with a digital presence, is approaching 60% of all consumer-facing business premises. This study sought to look at the business population, rather than a sample, which is relatively unique in this type of research. Considering more specifically the digital High Street across the county, however, the picture is not so strong, as only one in five businesses are offering their goods and services for sale online. This means that nearly 3800 business are closed in the virtual world.
In its first year to May 2018, the Digital High Street Project has established baseline evidence of digital technology uptake across Warwickshire towns. This has been used to inform investment by councils and individual business.
This baseline evidence has revealed that Warwickshire has a developing digital economy, which is built on a solid digital infrastructure. There is also a very good physical trading environment in the towns explored by this study.
But there are opportunities to grow the scope of digital business further by expanding the reach beyond the borders of Warwickshire; increasing the number of channels served and building stronger customer relationships through digital communications (web-based and social media). The challenge in going forward is to address these issues based on the understanding provided by the project.
In tandem with the Loughborough University research project, Warwickshire County Council has funded and delivered digital skills training to town centre businesses across the county as part of a broader package of support to independent high street businesses. Around 70 businesses have undertaken the digital skills courses, with success stories including retailers that have expanded as a result of embracing digital as a means of strengthening their business. The team is developing a new intervention plan for 2018/19 to ensure that digital support is targeted where it is most needed across its town centres.
Over the past two and a half years Warwickshire has also worked with partners to enable free public-access Wi-Fi to be installed in some of its town centres. Six town centres now have free public Wi-Fi, with five centres also having GeoSense footfall counters. Unlike traditional footfall counters, GeoSense works by tracking Wi-Fi enabled devices, thereby monitoring visitor movements across the town centre, as well as differentiating between new and repeat visitors. The system allows real time footfall analytics, including dwell times.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The analysis currently provided is intended to be useful for councils and other place managers to help understand places, provide evidence of need in terms of digital development, to monitor change and help in managing improvement. Next steps in development to sustain and expand the approach include:
- Scaling up: the SITE Engine is designed to analyse specified geographical areas from individual streets to whole cities or counties.
- Improving effectiveness: by understanding which factors affect the retail area the most we are able to weight our scores to reflect this
- Automation: to provide universal access to place managers through a web-based portal on demand.
As a research project this has provided important understanding about Warwickshire towns and also how the approach can be expanded to include other places. The researchers at Loughborough University are keen to engage with other councils and places.
Dr Fiona Ellis-Chadwick
School of Business & Economics
Team Leader - Town Centres & Tourism
Infrastructure & Regeneration
Warwickshire County Council
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