The customer experience of town centres

This 2014 report analyses how and why customers visit town centres. Based on 200 shoppers carrying out weekly questionnaires, telephone interviews, and keeping online diaries of their experiences of Swindon, Huddersfield, Watford, Loughborough, Bury St Edmunds, or Sandbach, the report pinpoints the customer 'journey’ and town centre 'touch points’ to demonstrate what makes people come back, go elsewhere, what they value, and what they dislike about high streets and town centres.

Date added 5 October 2021
Last updated 5 October 2021

*This resource is more than 5 years old but has been included as it contains information that is still relevant and useful*

This report focuses on customer experience of town centres. The research the report is based on involved 200 shoppers keeping online diaries of their experiences of Swindon, Huddersfield, Watford, Loughborough, Bury St Edmunds, or Sandbach over a 4-week period. Within the diaries, participants logged all aspects of their shopping activity over this time period, including where they shopped, with whom, how much time and money they spent, and how digital technologies supplanted their physical shopping activities. They also completed a weekly questionnaire in which they identified 'critical incidents’ occurring during their shopping activities (i.e. significant encounters), and a follow-up telephone interview. Based on this research, some key findings are outlined:

Some key findings

1. Convenience is key - consumers studied mostly chose shopping locations close to home (41%) or work, basing shopping decisions on factors such as availability of stores, accessibility, and product choice (19%). Many sought a trouble-free and functional visit. Stock issues was the most cited reason for shopping objectives not being met.

2. Creatures of habit - the study found around 60% of shopping journeys in town centres are habitual, with consumers often keeping to the same route. Shopping clusters were attractive, and consumers often chose locations based on length of walk from car park to shops.

3. Physical shopping experiences – consumers still seek out physical shopping experiences, such as being able to touch items like clothing, with encounters with customer-facing employees providing memorable critical incidents, whether positive or negative.

4. Customer experience and spend – consumers shopping with family or friends spent up to 50% more than those shopping alone, with experiential touch-points such as social interactions, hospitality, and leisure heightening enjoyment, extending dwell time, increasing spend, and attracting consumers away from online shopping.

5. Reasons for outshopping – the main reasons for consumers choosing to shop out of the local centre (e.g. supermarkets, alternative town centre, retail parks) was because of the convenience of being located near to work, greater range of goods, attractiveness of independents not available locally, or to combine shopping with tourism and newness.

Drawing on the research findings, the report also offers several key recommendations regarding how to enhance consumers’ experiences of town centres and high streets:

Key recommendations

1. Coordinated and collective - there needs to be a coordinated and collective approach to managing town centres, to ensure there is a desirable mixture of stores and services, anchors are protected, and new businesses are supported. It is important to support leisure and service providers not just shops.

2. Facilitate availability and convenience - strategies need to be put in place to avoid there being a lack of choice, limited range, and poor stock availability, which can cause consumer dissatisfaction. Attention should be given to stock availability, communicating this to consumers, and offering convenient services like click-and-collect.

3. Maximise town centre journey - consumers need a reason to divert from their habitual shopping routes. Improved signage, merchandising techniques, themed events, and marketing campaigns can help to attract consumers to quieter areas and create experiences.

4. Customer service - positive customer service is important for encouraging loyalty and repeat visits to town centres. Initiatives could be created to ensure the quality, consistency, and value of customer service, for example through staff training and rewards.

5. Integrate digital experience - digital technologies can be used to enhance the town centre customer experience. Things like product availability and event information in a one-stop digital information point, accessible Wi-Fi, and store-finder apps can help ensure the internet supports rather than supplants town centre experiences.

6. Encourage social interactions – social interactions should be encouraged in town centres, since shopping and interacting with others can lead to longer visits, enhanced spending, and better experiences, for example through community cafes and meeting places.