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How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping

By understanding the impacts of everything from online shopping to changing demographics, we can level up communities.

By Les Dolega and Alex Singleton

High streets and town centres across the UK have undergone a substantial transformation in both form and function in recent years. Covid-19 brought into sharp focus the fragility of retail – a sector that over the past decade had already been severely eroded by rapidly changing consumer purchase behaviour and the increasing use of internet shopping.

Falling footfall, lost revenues and mounting fixed business costs have further eroded the vitality of these urban spaces and had a detrimental impact on traditional “bricks and mortar” retailers, triggering a large wave of insolvencies across the UK. Iconic brands such as Debenhams, Peacocks and Gap – alongside many other small chains and independent retailers – have recently vanished from our high streets.

For decades the revitalisation of urban spaces has largely relied on new retail developments. However, there seems to be a consensus among practitioners and academics that there is currently asubstantial surplus of physical retail spaces in the UK. Although the decline of high streets is not uniform,this issue requires urgent attention from policymakers to “level up” those left-behind towns and high-street communities.

In our Geographic Data Science Lab at the University of Liverpool, we use data and advanced geospatial algorithms to provide various retail-related research outputs and data products. This work is essential for the systematic monitoring of the performance of UK retail centres, allowing us to better understand their exposure to current societal and market driving forces. In turn, this means we can track and predict the evolutionary trajectories of a given high street. Most of these retail data products employ open-source data, use fully transparent and replicable methodology, and are available online from the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), a collaborative research organisation established in 2014 with funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council. They have been applied by large retailers, policymakers and government bodies.

To monitor retail centre performance and generate useful metrics for policymakers, it is crucial to have access to up-to-date and reliable spatial data. However, the town centre boundaries used by the government were adopted in 2004 by a predecessor to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and, as such, are largely outdated. The retail centres boundaries we have developed in Liverpool’s Geographic Data Science Lab, use up-to-date, open-source data for the entire UK, are retail-specific, and are more granular. We have also developed a transparent hierarchical classification of these centres based on their form and function and a set of indicators capturing their composition, diversity and economic performance.

To better understand the economic performance of UK retail centres it is crucial to account for demand factors. Research shows that a good match between retail offer and consumer demand is essential to the success of retail centres. As a result, at Liverpool we have estimated two types of retail catchments: drive times and walking distances. We created profiles of those catchments based on a number of measures including deprivation, exposure to internet sales and geodemographics. These open-source products are available from the CDRC website and are utilised by a large number of stakeholders, including the High Street Task Force, an alliance of experts working to redefine the high street.

These tools can help policymakers, at both a local and national level, make the decisions that will help revive our high streets and level up communities across the UK.

To learn more, visit: www.liverpool.ac.uk/geographic-data-science/

Les Dolega is a senior lecturer in retail geography at the University of Liverpool

Alex Singleton is a professor of geographic information science at the University of Liverpool