Midlands Retail Forum: Town Centres must evolve to remain relevant

MRF: Solihull Town Centre Event

This week the Midlands Retail Forum (MRF) ran an event at Touchwood Centre, Solihull to talk about the ‘Future of Town Centres’. Having conducted an independent survey of shoppers on the town centre, the purpose of this event was to share the results and key lessons from this research work. The room was full of business owners from the town centre who were interested in hearing the results as well as finding out about the future plans.

The MRF has done a lot of research on this topic in the last 18 months, working with businesses from the Retail, Leisure and Hospitality sectors and our evidence (backed up by the Office of National Statistics reports) indicates that retail is increasing slowly, where the retailers are adapting to changing customer demands. There are town centres that are in decline, but when you look deeper, often you can see the same issue; whilst customer demands have changed, some town centres have not – and there are not enough reasons for shoppers to keep coming back.

Online is currently accounting for around 19% of total retail sales (ONS, May 2019). That means around 80% of retail is still done in person and many people associate shopping as a more social than functional activity.

So what were the key findings of the survey?

  • Visitors look at more than the shops themselves and ask ‘what are the other things on offer’ before visiting a location?
  • People want easy and cheap parking, or good travel networks.
  • People want more exciting, diverse and independent brands. If it’s all the same, then why should I visit here?

An expert panel responded to the survey results and took questions from the audience of business owners from the town centre.

Boosting both footfall and visitor spending is at the top of the agenda for the Solihull BID and John Timms, Operations Manager for Solihull BID, talked about the success of the ‘Food Festival’ and also reminded us of the upcoming events planned during the summer holidays. These would attract more people to the centre and hopefully allow them to sample the great facilities that are here.

Recognising that there is more to just the shops, Tony Elvin, General Manager of Touchwood talked about how their strategy is always about creating more ‘compelling reasons for people to visit and once here, stay longer’. This is his team’s ongoing focus and they were working alongside the other stakeholders in the town centre such as the Solihull Council, Solihull BID and the Chamber of Commerce. As an example Touchwood have just opened their Urban Beach, something that visitors can enjoy in July and August, whilst out spending the afternoon in the town centre. The stats show, the longer they stay in the centre, the more likely they are to spend more money.

There is a real collaborative approach going on here in Solihull, ‘We want to make Solihull a destination that people have to visit’ was the message from Robert Elliot, President of Solihull Chamber. There are an increasing number of eateries and shops popping up in Solihull that you know would become reasons for more shoppers to travel into the Town Centre and, once there, they are ideally placed to try other businesses as well.

A visitor to Solihull is likely to use different parts of the Town Centre in a single visit and for that reason everyone knowing what role they can play is important. A bad experience in one place can have a knock-on effect on the overall experience. For this reason the collaborative approach is important for everyone’s benefit. This is something I highlight in all my client conversations;

“Everyone needs to know the role they will play in delivering an excellent Customer Experience. The experience starts in the car park or at the bus stop right through the whole High Street or Shopping Centre.”

Solihull as a Town Centre is doing all the right things and asking all the right questions of itself. It is also working together as a collective to ensure that stakeholders work with each other. Everyone we have met is singing the same tune; ‘Solihull Town Centre is a great place to visit’ and this is the right attitude that will ensure Solihull’s continuing success.