What can combining the brains and experience of 35 academics and business leaders for one day achieve?

On Tuesday I was proud to be part of the first Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) and Local Data Company (LDC) Thought Leadership Day hosted at the amazing building that the Said Business School, University of Oxford, operates from. Thanks to the support of the CDRC and the hard work of Dr Jonathan Reynolds and his team in Oxford we had an excellent and productive day and some excellent feedback that will enable us to achieve even more next time.

35 leading university academics from England, Scotland and Wales along with business practitioners from Boots, Sainsburys, NewRiver Retail, AO.com, Rightmove, EE, Mitchells & Butler, SEGRO, Lloyds Banking Group, MindFolio, The Retail Practice, Luminar and Legacy Portfolio gathered to look at three areas of academic research that LDC has worked with universities on. LDC has, for over three years, assisted academic research from GCSE students to PhD and ESRC funded projects in order to deliver insights, challenge and commentary on areas never explored before.

The four themes were;

I: Understanding retail places (Reynolds & Sparks)

Jonathan Reynolds (University of Oxford):
The state of GB retail places

Leigh Sparks (University of Stirling):
Understanding retail change in Scotland’s town centres

II: Understanding the customer experience (Lansley & Hart)

Cathy Hart (Loughborough University):
Researching the customer experience of town centres

Guy Lansley (UCL):
Understanding footfall and high street visitor insight

III: Modelling catchments & decision-making (Pavlis & Nanda)

Michail Pavlis (University of Liverpool):
Estimating retail centre catchments

Anupam Nanda (Henley Business School):
Using data to model the decision-making processes of real estate owners, occupiers & consumers

IV: The future research agenda 

As one can imagine a vast amount of content was generated and will follow as part of a full report in due course. That said I would like to share some of the key themes that emerged from the various presentations in a series of bullet points.

  • What is the best way to measure the performance of places? There are many ways as the LDC/OXIRM diversity index and LDC/Morgan Stanley Health index show but at the end of the day is the objective managing for change or managing decline? Or another approach is that there are no bad or good locations it is just a series of profiles.
  • With much of the research on places not showing much change then does that mean we might have the wrong measures?
  • What you measure is key. Is it about settlements of people, specific retail locations, government defined administrative boundaries, urban places or indeed something else? Is place defined by what the consumer thinks and does?
  • Much of the data outside of the LDC field research data is seriously lacking. One example quoted was footfall where the barometers published by the likes of the BRC and SRC cover less that 10% of the retail places and on occasions footfall performance is diametrically opposite to sales. ie. Footfall goes down and then the retail sales published go up. Are these measure right or indeed valid?
  • Terminology and vocabulary is a key area that needs addressing. With vacancy for example, what are we measuring? What does the change mean? We talk of L4L in sales so should we not have L4L in vacancy? The recent addition of looking at the persistence of vacancy illustrates the importance of the deep dive of what it is and what it is telling us.
  • What is the inter-relationship between towns? In short this is either interdependency, independency or dependency. How does one measure this and what does it mean to occupiers and investors let alone local authorities? A framework is required to build consistency and impact. We also need to look at social impact and social capital measures. For example charity shops may be bad for property values but good for community cohesion and social value.
  • What is the difference between competition and competitiveness and how do you measure it? One great UCL Professorial statement was there are the ‘ups, downs and the hanging arounds!’
  • Understanding vitality is key but what is vitality, what makes it up and how does it define places?
  • What is the balance and priority of the key consumer drivers – functional (stores, parking, information etc) and experiential (senses, feelings and emotions)? Whilst consumers are impacted by experiential is anyone else who owns, occupies or manages places?
  • Pedestrianisation is often a planners answer to increasing footfall yet studies show that for many places 70% of people get to a town by car! One size cannot fit all, and all too often councils only adopt the one size fits all approach.
  • Flows of people in spaces is often offer dependent on that audience at a point in time. Pubs are one example where they now start with breakfast at 7am and close at 11pm with dinner and alcohol. An asset operates 24/7 but most businesses think 9-5.
  • Retail models are non-existent in the UK as the publications show with more credence given to models based on offices or industrial units which are then adjusted to fit retail. This is WRONG.
  • Proximity of brand is increasingly significant where 17-35% in cost or performance can be attributed to premium brands being nearby. Is this the John Lewis effect where they pay less rent than everyone else in a scheme due to their ‘footfall draw’ value or perceived value?
  • What is the natural vacancy rate for a location-based on its long run equilibrium?
  • How does chain store affiliation impact a location and what is the impact of strategic openings or closures? Waitrose opening, M&S leaving town or Primark opening?
  • Models need to be fluid as many commercial ones are not as they need to accommodate change and leverage new data. Doing what you have always done will give you what you always got, which for many is not life enhancing as a business.

So these were some of the generic themes which were then discussed in detail as to what it means in reality for practitioners who essentially need to know;

Which location, where and why? and What will you take and what will you make?

Feedback from the day was very positive and therefore the aim is to develop the day further, bring practitioners and academics to the presentations so case studies can come into play (real life evidence). Much work needs to be done on definitions etc and an interim action will be for the academics and partners such as LDC to agree these, combine resources in order to prevent duplication and then focus on narrower areas that deliver practical examples.

So I think this will now be an annual event with an interim academic/commercial partners event to tie down definitions in order to deliver the consistency this requires.

Massive opportunity to add real value and partnership between academia and business exists for the benefit of all and as LDC’s core purpose is ‘Sharing knowledge to create a better place to be’ we look forward to playing our role in delivering that.

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