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Town centres adapt as consumers move towards digital and convenience: report

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British town centres are changing as they adapt to evolving customer demands, a new report suggests.

Researchers at the University of Southampton’s Retail Research Group found that Britons are above all looking for convenience – and finding it both in high street, for quick ‘top-up’ shops, and online shopping, whereas once they found it in out-of-town retail destinations. In High street performance and evolution – a brief guide to the evidence, they cite IGD 2014 research, of June 2014, that suggests convenience store sales will grow over the next five years to account for 24.1% of the grocery market by 2019, while hypermarket and superstore market share will fall over the same period from 42.2% to 34.9%.

Meanwhile convenience is also driving digital ways of buying. “The convenience of browsing and comparing a wide selection of products 24/7 offered by PCs and more recently on smartphones and tablets is creating new forms of consumer behaviour,” said report authors Professor Neil Wrigley and Dr Dionysia Lambiri. “To reach an increasingly digitally sophisticated and time-constrained consumer base, retailers have been forced to innovate and explore the omnichannel offer – and to embrace both click and collect services and ‘showroom’ stores. Retailers have also had to reassess their store portfolios, in many cases leading to a concentration of their activitities in primary centres.”

TThe report suggests click and collect has pushed people back to stores – and predicts that within five years, seven out of 10 online shoppers will prefer to collect goods themselves rather than miss a delivery at home – double the 35% who collect their orders today. This, however, will only happen if retailers offer these fulfillment options. The report suggests that high streets offer facilities such as ‘collection cafes’ for online pick-ups, piloting such services in an existing coffee shop or bar that has space available. On-the-go technologies such as mobile phones and tablets may also have potential for boosting “town centre vitality” – but, say the report authors, more research is needed.

They conclude: “Multichannel reality offers significant opportunities for innovation on the high street. Early evidence suggests that town centre management has an important role to play in the new digital era, to ensure that internet supports – rather than replaces – the town centre experience.”

The Government’s high streets minister Penny Mordaunt said the study showed that flexible and dynamic town centres were enjoying an upturn despite competition from the internet and out-of-town stores. “This report shows our high streets to be adaptable, creative and resilient,” she said.

Simon Roberts, managing director, health and beauty UK and Republic of Ireland, Alliance Boots, and Future High Streets Forum co-chairman said: “We welcome the report’s findings and continue to work with the Future High Street Forum to drive this agenda forward. High streets are changing with clear evidence of effective business engagement and leadership making a real difference. Town centres matter to our customers – they are at the heart of many communities, providing identity as well as growth, development and jobs.”

The study is released alongside the launch of the Great British High Street competition. The competition, being run by the Future High Streets Forum and the Association of Town and City Management, closes on August 30 and has seven categories: city, town, market and village centres as well as coastal communities, parades and London. Winners will share in prize money and support worth £50,000.

Mordaunt said: “The Great British High Street competition is a chance to showcase those strengths, to bust myths about the long-term future of our town centres and to rewards the local talent, teamwork and energy that goes into making our high streets great places to visit, work or live.”

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