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UK consumers still loyal to the high street, Loughborough University research reveals

A study into consumer behaviour, led by Cathy Hart, senior lecturer in Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics (SBE), has revealed that despite increasing competition, town centres are still the preferred shopping destination, accounting for almost a third of all retail visits.

However, competition from online retail, supermarkets and out-of-town stores is likely to prove ‘overwhelming’ if town centres do not seize the opportunity to adapt to changing consumer behaviour, the report warns.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the study was co-funded and supported by a group of project partners, including Argos, the Association of Convenience Stores, Action for Market Towns, Boots UK, the British Retail Consortium and the Loughborough BID Partnership.

The researchers tracked consumers across six towns – Huddersfield, Loughborough, Swindon, Watford, Sandbach and Bury St Edmunds – with respondents logging every aspect of their shopping activity and experiences over a four-week period.

“Consumers haven’t deserted the high street – yet,” says Cathy Hart, head of the SBE’s Town Centre Research Interest Group. “The fact is that most people, for all sorts of reasons, still prefer to shop in the heart of their own communities – and that in itself is hugely significant.

“But that doesn’t mean the competition should be ignored. The fact remains that right now town centres are just ahead, and the competition is intensifying. Supermarkets are close behind, while online retailing, although attracting fewer visits, already generates more spending.

“What our research shows is that a positive customer experience in the town centre leads to longer dwell times and more spending. But if consumers no longer achieve the functional aspects of their shopping visit, then some high streets may disappear.”

The study revealed that

  • Consumers mainly choose destinations close to home or work, citing convenience, range of stores, access and parking as the principal reasons.
  • Some 60% of consumers’ journeys around town centres are habitual, rarely straying from their regular routes.
  • Consumers who shopped in town centres with family and friends were found to spend up to 50% more than those who shopped alone.
  • While approximately 13% of retail activity took place online, the average spend per online ‘visit’, at £56.61, was slightly higher than in town centres.

Cathy says: “It’s clear people still want to be immersed in the physical shopping experience. Our research also shows that consumers are less likely to shop online or out of town if they find the experience of shopping in a town centre enjoyable.”

Included in the report, entitled The Customer Experience of Town Centres, are a number of recommendations:

  • Town management partnerships should coordinate a balanced mix of goods and services for their customers, linking retail, leisure and service providers to strengthen the overall customer experience, so extending visits and increasing spend in town centres.
  • Retail merchandising techniques should be adopted to encourage consumers to divert from their habitual routes and ‘rediscover’ their town centres.
  • Information management, online support or apps should be improved to provide availability and location of products, stores, services and events in town centres. Click and collect provision should be expanded to bring new brands to the town centre.
  • The quality and value of customer service should be communicated to retail staff and events and activities promoted to attract community groups, families and friends to use the town centre socially, boosting the evening economy.

Tom Ironside, the British Retail Consortium’s Director of Business and Regulation, described the findings as “timely and welcome”.

He said: “We all know town centres are going through a period of profound structural change as the way people shop, interact and socialise changes. What is clear from this research is that town centres must try to differentiate what they offer by providing a unique experience, the right retail mix and good reasons to spend time and money.”