Digital technology and data

Rather than seeing changing shopping habits as a threat, it is important for your council to be forward-thinking in how digital opportunities can help town centres develop. As part of COVID-19 recovery, the way in which communities can interact digitally with town centre businesses and services has become more critical.

Global shopping habits have changed with the internet, leading to concerns about the changing role of our town centres. There are though, also tremendous opportunities to use digital techologies to improve how people enjoy and experience what town and city centres have to offer. By embracing digital in planning and providing for its uptake, your council can help boost the way local town centres are promoted, accessed, used, organised and understood. It is an essential part of giving places a commercial advantage and should be a building block of wider tourism promotion too.

Taking retail online

The Government-backed digital high street 2020 report made four principal recommendations that it considered as critical to the revitalising town centres in a digitally dominated world and where councils can assist through local leadership including: enabling sufficient access through infrastructure; improving basic digital skills; sharing knowledge and innovative practices between authorities; and a High Street digital health index to monitor impact. The report has a strong focus on helping independent retailers to upskill in their digital capabilities.

According to the digital high street report, your town centre’s digital development should focus on:

Omni-channel retailing and leisure: The town centre experience should extend customers’ choices of when to shop, where to shop, and how to shop by engaging with retailers’ websites and apps, as a seamless experience.

Big Data, personalisation and social media: The modern digital retailer should be able to use technology to re-create the classic one-to-one customer relationship that is the hallmark of the local shop.

In-store experiences and street-trading: Shops should be making their locations digitally interactive and engaging to attract footfall including taking payments, demonstrating products, offering information, and encouraging social sharing.

Marketing technologies: Both prior to and during a visit to the town centre, there are opportunities to engage with potential customers including through emerging contactless technologies such as QR codes, NFC tags and BLE beacons (different types of in-situ markers that a smart phone can interact with).

Extending the digital impact

Restaurants, cafes, pubs, cinemas and other important non-retail services need to similarly be able to maximise opportunities offered by digital technology to understand and target customers better. A town’s digital strategy can link an understanding of underperforming sectors with an understanding of identity, branding and place marketing as well as wider pooling and sharing of data. The local leadership of a place-based digital strategy should also consider the role of digital as part of local stakeholder engagement.

Digital parking potential

Town centre digital strategies need to be broad and look beyond retail. Parking is an example of where new technology also offers great opportunities to transform the customer experience and enable more efficient management.

As a key service and gateway to town centres, it is vital that parking is directly addressed as part of digital strategies and practice. Here are five distinct but inter-linked areas from a commentary on switching on the digital opportunity from the People & Places Partnership. Such advances can be led by your council locally in ways that link directly to the approach for retail advocated in the Digital High Street 2020 Report:

  • Locating parking spaces: The ability to locate available parking spaces appropriate to the purpose of a journey should be integrated with innovation in marketing technologies
  • Flexible tariffs: Ways easily extend a parking stay and offer flexibility to adjust charges to help manage demand should be considered as part of the omni-channel retailing and leisure experience
  • Cashless parking: User-friendly smart phone payments where ultimately payment is made automatically online are an extension of innovation in the in-store experience
  • Customer data: Access to customer profile data and even the ability to directly market local offers and special events is another aspect of the personalisation of Big Data
  • Customer loyalty: The option for retailers to reimburse parking costs to loyal and valued customers could be an extension of the omni-channel approach tied to personalisation of Big Data.

The digital development of parking provision and cashless payment face the same inclusion issues faced by retail. Imagine though a scenario possible in the next few years where all motoring costs are cashless, public transport uses Oyster cards or similar and town centre visits are paid for with contactless technology but your car park users still have to search for change to feed the parking metre!

In the near future, it will be possible to join-up all these aspects of digital parking provision so that so many of the perceived barriers to town centre parking no longer exist and businesses can feel positive about the customer welcome to towns.

Valuing data

The ethical use of digital data from sources including travel movements, parking, mobile phone activity, social media interaction and Wi-Fi usage provide cost-effective and informative insights about the changing use of town centres. Local authorities may have access to a wide range of data and be trusted users of such aggregated information. Procedures for the collection and use of digital data should be included within town centre action plans as a way of increasing understanding, targeting marketing and monitoring change.

Accelerating proposals to take towns online

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted a greater need and priority being giving to digital activity both in the ways councils and place managers engage with stakeholders and the ways in which businesses and services communicate with customers. It is important that businesses and other stakeholders are supported in being forward-thinking in how digital technology and data can help town centres reach new customers and develop.

Councils and town partnerships should engage with stakeholder groups to develop and begin to deliver town-wide digital strategies supporting on-line engagement and marketing. Such strategies can help ease current pressures and will also contribute to long-term revitalisation, eg pre-ordering of selected items with click-and-collect in long-term to boost footfall.

Councils should also build on the necessity for on-line engagement with communities to explore and embed inclusive ways of working through use of webinars and online polls to supplement face-to-face meetings.

Case studies

Gloucester City Council and Gfirst Local Enterprise Partnership has commissioned Marketing Gloucester to test and develop town-wide future city technologies including opening the UK:DRIC -a new national centre for digital retail innovation within a city shopping centre.

Leeds City Council has worked with the city’s BID to offer a free digital service providing real-time key city intelligence to businesses (footfall, parking etc.) and a communications hub for information sharing.