How to entice visitors back to high streets

By Lizzie Costelloe, Managing Director Brand and Retail, Four Communications

There has been a monumental shift in the way that consumers engage with places. The dramatic rise of localism was initially a behaviour that was forced on consumers in the early months of the pandemic, but then become a passion point for consumers wanting to continue to support small and support local retailers. Additionally, with retail locations and town centres closing doors, consumers were very quickly forced to change their habits and browse the web.

However, despite early commentators highlighting that this could be the end of the high street and the physical store, in fact the recovery has begun. In the UK for example, the retail expert Springboard, which measures footfall activity across all UK retail destinations, reported that in April 2021 (the month that non-essential retail re-opened following three months of closures) footfall was -32.7% lower than in 2019, compared with -55.2% lower in March.


How are high streets ‘wowing’ visitors?

But consumers are more discerning than ever, so to entice them back to high streets there is a greater need for brands and destinations to ‘wow’ visitors with constantly evolving fresh, new experiences in order to entice visitation and spend. Westfield London recently announced it would launch a new “interactive” pop-up shopping experience, part of a partnership with Lone Design Club (LDC), which is designed to “empower” independent and sustainable designers. Burberry has launched a new AR-led experience at Harrods as a fresh and innovative way to launch its new season bag.  It is not just transactional: shoppers want to buy the experience and live the dream. The new Browns Brook Street in Mayfair London is a brand new concept boutique which provides a full 360 experience across shopping, digital and dining – a brilliant example of the ‘new’ physical retail experience.

Destinations need to be more creative in their thinking – it’s not just about the retail offer but the additional experiences that can be layered onto the shopping experience which will drive the reason to visit. The ingeniously curated Anya Hindmarch village in Pont Street on the Cadogan Estate in London is a brilliant  example. The village includes a concept café, bespoke shops, a store focussed  on circularity with products recycled from plastic, a hairdresser, and a pop-up  space for revolving activations.

Another example is King’s Cross and Coal Drops Yard in London - an impressive retail and leisure destination has become known for delivering stand-out activations and events. In 2020, a new Artist in Residency programme was launched by King’s Cross, to decorate and improve public spaces in partnership with new and exciting London artists, to bring joy back into everyday life.

In the same vein, Westminster City Council has announced plans to create a tree-lined pedestrianised piazza on Oxford Street in London which will mean, for the first time, sections of the world-famous shopping street will be fully closed to traffic – a bold and important step for driving a better shopper experience. The long-term ambition then will be to create multiple reasons to visit and revisit the street with a focus on global, first on-street and in-store experiences that can only be found on London’s Oxford Street.

Updating traditional research methods for  new consumer behaviours

Such innovation doesn’t happen alone. It also requires an understanding of our new changed audiences.

Traditional visitor research methods help us to understand what it is about a place that draws people in, but as places reopen, these research methods are not agile enough to capture the emerging, evolving picture of what the ‘recovery’ audience wants and needs. This makes it challenging for places to truly understand how they can deploy limited marketing and communications budgets in the most meaningful way to drive positive outcomes for places. Places need a visitor-targeting solution that allows them to be agile in response to emergent complexity, reconnecting and communicating with their audiences to restore confidence, build desire to visit, and ultimately fuel a return in footfall and spend.

But even armed with audience data and insight, it is difficult to apply it in a truly targeted and actionable way. Current visitor profiling techniques are disconnected from marketing and communications activities. Place marketers have no way of knowing that their digital and on-the-ground activity is actually connecting with the right people in real-time.

The key to running successful footfall driving campaigns or initiatives is to listen to what your audiences want and be prepared to adapt your approach to meet their needs. Using a diverse range of sources for this insight - including surveys, social media and review sites - gives rich, real-time data sets to dive into to understand what matters to people most and now. It allows us to not only make the right recommendations for partnerships, products and event strategies, but also to tap into how people are feeling, and thus strike absolutely the right tone in our messaging. By adopting an audience-led approach to planning, you are able to effectively create campaigns that hit the audience’s mood and sentiment at the right time and when they want it –inspiring them to at that moment visit and spend.

To help destinations realise their potential, at Four we have developed a bespoke marketing and communications methodology to support places in responding to these challenges: Footfall Recovery. At the heart of the Footfall Recovery methodology is an ethos of better decisions through data. We have developed a unique data approach for places, fusing industry-leading visitor segmentations, such as CACI Acorn, and survey-based insight tools like YouGov Profiles with our proprietary digital insights methodology, Mapper360®.

Through this innovative data approach, we can build unrivalled target visitor profiles for a destination which leverage the power of real-time social media data to give an understanding not just of who our audiences are, but exactly what matters most to them right now. We can track what they need from the places they visit for work and leisure as we emerge from COVID, which events, partners and brands they want to reconnect with; and perhaps most importantly, we know exactly how to reach them, where and when.

There has been a monumental shift in the way that consumers engage with high streets.  To entice them back, place makers need to make a similar monumental shift to understand their new audiences and create new exciting multi-layered experiences that will bring people flocking back into the high streets of our cities and towns.

Related reading

Place2Place: The place branding and marketing podcast

Strategies for resurrecting your placemaking assets - your local businesses and cultural life

Seven thoughts to keep in mind to promote equitable development

Four thought-provoking themes from City Nation Place Americas 2021

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.