Who’s afraid of Amazon? Town centres and main streets under pressure

Town centres and mainstreets are the heartbeat of our local communities. Walking to get a coffee, buying lollies at the milk bar after school, or stopping to pick up a newspaper; these are all activities that almost died out with the era of the supermarket and megastore.

The rise of online shopping has continued to put a squeeze on local trading. If our mainstreets die out, what else is lost along with it? With the influx of alternative buying opportunities, we no longer rely on our town centres for local shopping.

The nostalgia of buying lollies at the milk bar after school might be lost, along with a sense of local pride and chances for connection. We no longer frequent our local shops for traditional uses, however we do have an opportunity to transform them into a new brand of experience.

This sign hangs in a shop window and is a stark reminder that we need to rekindle the sense of connection with our mainstreets.

This sign hangs in a shop window and is a stark reminder that we need to rekindle the sense of connection with our mainstreets.

From traditional convenience to local lifestyle destinations

Globally, mainstreets are dying. Successful ones are reinventing themselves as lifestyle destinations. Thankfully, locals like to be able to walk to their local shops again, but it is not out of necessity for items, such as groceries or picking up a newspaper. Today, it is about experience.

The traditional services of the mainstreet still have purpose and value, but the strip as a whole must reflect the values and needs of that neighbourhood in order to thrive in a sustainable way. The purpose of visiting the local shops may have changed, but the benefits of colliding with local neighbours, having a local centre for community activity, and a local gathering place; these benefits are just as important today, but they are unlocked by experience, not necessity.

Our research shows that even when neighbourhoods look similar on the surface, the social fabric and place identity can vary widely.  This means that in order to revitalise our mainstreets and boost local trade as a lifestyle destination, we must truly understand the behaviour and experience of locals. This information is key to making sure town centres and main streets thrive.

Vibrant mainstreets make neighbourhoods more walkable, healthier, and more connected. 
— Lucinda Hartley

Local shopping areas have been majorly disrupted by big player entrants and online retail trends. This can paint technology as the enemy, but what if technology is also the answer you need?

The corner store grocery run has sadly become a thing of the past.

The corner store grocery run has sadly become a thing of the past.

3 ways social data can help revitalise your mainstreet

Advances in big data are disrupting how we measure and understand place. Here’s three ways that it can benefit your local shopping destinations as a means of planning for a resilient future for neighbourhoods.

  1. Authentic places have an authentic sense of identity.

In order to create a successful experience destination, you must be able to tap into the mindset of that local trade area. The best way to do that is to look at our behaviour.

In the words of psychologist Carl Jung, “We are what we do, not what we say we do.” Our self-reported behaviours do not always match our actual behaviours, and this is where social data becomes so important. Our collective digital footprint online paints a picture of the types of places and activities we value most based on our actual behaviour.

Often, mainstreet locations act as an anchor for the identity of a local neighbourhood. There is the physical structure - a destination to which you can walk the dog, a path to the local primary school - but there is also the ways these are valued, used, and brought to life from the perspective of the local people.

Understanding the true authentic identity of a place from social data, informs decision-makers to set the local trade on a path to authentic revitalisation. For instance, knowing the authentic trends in place identity will help you understand how to update the design and facades, what programs will help build customer retention, the stickiness of a place and whether or not people will feel comfortable and welcome there.

2. Real-time means real responsive.

Experience happens in the here and now. While social data is collected on-demand, the retail industry too often relies on traditional methods and data. Unfortunately, five-year-old data is not too helpful when it comes to understanding what is going to be popular this spring.

Purchasing behaviour changes; season to season, year to year. The retail industry is increasingly required to be responsive to global and local trends, events, seasons and special days.

Ever more elaborate store displays in major shopping centres, temporary pop-up store and themed sales days are all reflective of this drive to maximise sales by being responsive. The pressure to be relevant in an ever-growing experience economy, is driving the need for relevant data.

Understanding the behavioural trends and insights of the local neighbourhood in near real-time means that we are well-positioned to understand how to make responsive and relevant decisions.

3. Match local services with accurate local needs.

If we are no longer going to the shops to pick up a bottle of milk, then what are we going to purchase? We are seeking an authentic experience - yes - that is relevant to our current season - yes - but what do we do, purchase, and exchange when we get there?

Attracting a local audience and converting to purchase, means providing the goods and services that they want and need. The types of shops can be curated accordingly.

Many revitalisation schemes fall into the trap of what we call the assumption problem. This is where an over-reliance on psychographics, demographics, and census data leads to the wrong type of services being provided because assumptions are made about place users that are in inauthentic. Understanding local psychographics is not as important as understanding what local people value, how they spend their time, and what they talk about. Each neighbourhood is different, and local trading spots can drive sales by matching the services they provide with the needs and wants of their specific area.

Data-driven decisions for authentic revitalisation 

These three steps allow local shopping areas to adapt, revive, and thrive as they respond to the current needs, wants, and values of local customers. Local mainstreets can turn themselves into a valued destination for the neighbourhood, places that people love and feel connected to. Such places come alive with an authentic sense of belonging, priming town centres for financial resurgence as well as building social, cultural, and environmental capital.

An article by Lucinda Hartley and Eliza Charley

Lucinda Hartley

I’m an urban designer and social entrepreneur who has spent the past decade pioneering innovative methods to improve the social sustainability of cities, now being implemented around the world. 

As a co-founder at Neighbourlytics, I bring my social innovation and entrepreneurship strengths to harness big data, and deliver community insights that inform evidence-based urban development decisions. Neighbourlytics is backed by BlueChilli Group’s highly competitive She Starts program.