The following article is reproduced with thanks from Future Cities Catapult City Innovation Brief Autumn 2017, a new quarterly publication that will show how cities across the UK are harnessing advanced urban services to help them become more productive, more sustainable, more inclusive, more resilient and more livable.

Smart High Streets

UK high streets have been in a state of flux in recent years. Consumer spending is on course for its weakest year since 2013 and most shopping locations are witnessing a year-on-year decline in visitors. In August, high street footfall was down by 2.6%, while online sales rose by 11%. As a result of these trends, 11% of all high street properties were empty between April to June 2017.

There is also an increasing gap between the vibrant and in-demand areas and those at the much more economically fragile end of the spectrum. London is home to 34% of the top 50 most vital commercial centres, while many of the bottom ranking areas are small high streets in deprived areas, struggling to compete with stronger commercial centres nearby. Plans for the introduction of a 100% business rates retention system will also not favour the most economically disadvantaged places.

Cities across the UK are therefore increasingly looking for ways to attract custom to high streets, facilitate convenient access to town centres, enhance visitor experiences and secure new investments in retail and leisure facilities.

What can cities do?

Free wi-fi is seen as an essential upgrade for most cities and provides important data and marketing information. For example, payphones in Camden are being replaced by InLinkUK kiosks that provide free wi-fi, calls and phone charging services, which are all funded by the incorporated digital advertising. A positive relationship has been reported between multiple wi-fi hotspots and digitally engaged consumers on the high street.

Footfall tracking technology can detect wi-fi enabled devices to measure the number of visitors, their movements and the frequency of visits. For example, the SmartStreetSensor project, a collaboration with University College London will install over 1,000 footfall sensors in 81 towns and cities, which will track passing devices every second. Data analytics can determine the preferences and behaviour of high street visitors. For example, Bringing Big Data to Small Users is a project co-funded by Innovate UK. It develops tools for policy makers, retailers, property owners, and local partnerships to make informed and collaborative decisions about the future of town and city centres.

Real-time communications can also be used to offer promotions and incentives. For example, Rewarding Visits is a start-up that launched a platform in Mansfield in March 2017, which allows shoppers to print promotional vouchers from a network of digital “touch points” to use at high street shops. This generated nearly £25,000 of consumer spending in its first week, offering a potential £1.3m stimulus over the next year. Proximity triggers detect customers as they approach targeted promotions, advertisements or news. For example, beacons attached to buildings in Manchester are now sending news updates direct to mobile phones as part of a Google-funded trial which went live in July 2017.

Challenges and opportunities

The increasing use of technology on high streets is blurring the lines between physical and digital retail. Rather than representing the slow and inevitable decline of the high street, this provides an opportunity to enhance the convenience and experience of accessing retail and leisure facilities.

A reported 80% of all UK sales have a digital touchpoint and people are increasingly using smartphones and tablets during town centre visits, with 56% of in-store sales involving a digital device (Internet Retailing 2017). However, recent research highlighted that UK high street stores are failing to match the online shopping experience, with four in 10 consumers frequently disappointed by in-store technology. Many of the efforts to address this change have been spearheaded by Business Improvement Districts. For example, Marketing Gloucester has positioned the city as a test bed for digital high street initiatives.

Another way in which local authorities are rejuvenating high streets is by partnering with investment firms. For example, the 2017 Lexicon Project in Bracknell is a £240m scheme backed by Legal & General and Schroder UK Real Estate Fund. Legal & General is also working on large schemes covering parts of Leeds, Cardiff and Cambridge.

Retail-led regeneration can revitalise communities by providing jobs, promoting economic growth and creating attractive places to draw people into an area. However, it is vitally important that this is embedded in a wider place-making and urban regeneration strategy, as outlined in a research paper from UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning.