Where’s The Customer? They’re In A Different Place

Last week saw the publication of a survey on British BIDs – Business Imporvement Districts funded by businesses in towns and cities up and down the land through a levy on their non-domestic rates.

Created by British BIDs, it had the backing of – among others – the Association of Town & City Management, the British Property Federation, the British Retail Consortium and REVO – the revamped British Council of Shopping Centres.

This week, we heard the news – the positive news – of investment in traditional bricks and mortar: not only have Morrisons committed to relaunch the Safeway brand, but Philip Day, owner of Edinburgh Woolen Mill is reviving Austin Reed with plans for 50 stores by 2018. And it’s not just the disappeared that are about to live again. There are new kids on the block – including 10 new stores planned by Polish kitchenware company, Duka. All good news for the traditional retailing space in our town and city centres.

I read through the BIDs’ survey – taking data from 216 BIDs, 192 of them representing town centres.

In the opening Exec Summary, Andy Godfrey of Boots says: “The scale of change impacting on our town centres and the remodelling required is unprecedented.” I’d agree wholeheartedly, but – for me – there’s little in the 56 page report to demonstrate either the changes required or the remodelling that’s needed. There’s plenty on finance, levy collection, governance, thresholds, ballots and policy. There’s some interesting facts & figures. But – admitted in the survey – the data included is (mostly) more than six months old. In today’s world, that is stuff for historians to pore over.

At the end, it struck me that a few things were missing. A few major things.

The word ‘customer’ appears nowhere in the publication. ‘Shoppers’ get no credit. Most surprising is that there’s not a single reference to ‘digital’ … and ‘social media’ gets no coverage either. Oh, and ‘high street’ is ignored too.

Such omissions back up my concerns re our town & city centres – and of many of those running them. I’ll explain.

This week, I popped into a branch of Costa. I couldn’t help but take a snap of a customer to demonstrate my thinking. She was FaceTiming a friend, chatting away happily whilst ordering her hot chocolate, waiting to pay – contactless of course. This is today’s customer. Today’s shopper … living in a digital world dominated by social media networks and communities, influenced more by friends, family and referrals than traditional advertising – demanding & expecting higher levels of engaged, responsive customer service than at any time in history.

Do towns and cities get that? Some do. Some are plugged in with integrated communication plans that are really making a positive difference. The majority? No. I still hear that social media is a “young person’s game” and those who should know better continue to question relevance, privacy, data protection, blah, blah, blah …

The lack of any reference to digital and social media in the survey is testament to the current void.

I – and I’m sure many others – would have loved to have seen the BID survey reviewing town and city engagement on digital channels. I would have loved to have read an assessment of the good, bad and indifferent attitudes towards how social media can best support BIDs, businesses and customers. How are destinations embracing digital? Are they using and delivering free Wi-Fi – and to what effect? How are businesses engaging with residents and visitors – and how are BIDs facilitating that interaction? Who is benefitting? Who is losing out? What are the opportunities?

In Professor Chris Turner’s introduction, he references that this is the 10th such survey, saying: “We now have a decade of data and will look to provide an increasing amount of analysis in future editions.” Analysis is key, but I get the impression too many look back rather than forward. As Kelvin Campbell of Massive Small stated at the recent Scotland’s Towns Partnership conference in Kirkcaldy: don’t wait … just do it. Towns and cities have been (and still are) guilty of far too much planning, analysis, pontification, navel-gazing & reporting. The result? Not enough action.

If more BIDs, town and city centres want to succeed, they need to act. How? In the space where customers exist. On the channels that customers choose. Only then, with an integrated approach to communication that will benefit all concerned, will the changes required be best understood and the remodelling needed be best delivered.

The customer drives it, not organisations … no matter how well intentioned they may be.


This Blog was first published on Huffington Post

25/11/2016 08:00 GMT | Updated 25/11/2017 05:12 GMT