New research has pinpointed key ingredients required to resurrect the fortunes of town centres, which have been in decline in many areas of the world since the global financial crisis.

Research by Dr Cathy Hart from Loughborough University in the UK and Dr Lara Stocchi from Flinders University in South Australia offered the first comprehensive analysis of customers’ experiences in town centres. In their article recently published in the Journal of Marketing Management, they identified an inventory of factors likely to influence whether consumers decide to visit their local town centre and the resulting overall customer experience. These insights represent key aspects that town centres should monitor and manage to enhance the customer satisfaction, leading to repeat patronage and an increase in the frequency of the shopping trips.

Town centres remain highly valued and attract both locals and visitors, but too many have failed to recognise what is necessary for success. This research clarifies what is required to meet consumer expectations, motivating larger catchments to shop in the high street. Consumers have changed their preferences over the years and due to technology they can access many goods and services anytime, anywhere. In order to remain competitive, town centres need to offer a unique and multi-faceted experience to consumers, which cannot be found at the touch of a screen.

The Journal of Marketing Management article by Stocchi, Hart and Haji explored these aspects in detail, thanks to substantial research conducted in the UK, involving a survey with more than 1,500 consumers and nearly 1,900 shopping trips across 10 town centres.

The key findings revealed that the most important functional attributes that attract consumers to a town centre include:

  • the variety and quality of stores;
  • the availability, range and depth of products; and
  • the ease of access to the town centre.

Furthermore, there are some very important experiential attributes, which can significantly influence consumers and are the town centres’ secrets for success. These include:

  • offering deals and bargains;
  • the variety and quality of food and beverages; and
  • the overall atmosphere of the town centre.

That is, people will come back to town centres if the right mix of shops, convenience, atmosphere and bargains are provided. They enjoy the experience of visiting a vibrant town centre, but it has to offer something different, with great food and refreshments, and an atmosphere that makes them want to come back.

After decades of decline, regional towns and suburban areas can now benefit from this knowledge and have been given the ‘tools’ required to reclaim their role at the heart of local and national economies. In days of financial downturn, this is more important than ever, given the importance of town centres as catalysts of employment and services provision. Developing a unique mix of ‘touch points’ valued by consumers, will enable town centre management to strengthen the overall experience offered to consumers, attract frequent shoppers and contribute to the economy.

Dr Hart and Dr Stocchi are working together to take this knowledge to the next level and are currently developing a tangible measurement tool to capture town centre performance from a consumer perspective. The idea is to embed this knowledge into a digital product, to gather consumer insights in real time and tracking their movements and perceptions. There has been an increasing demand for this research from a range of stakeholders, including town centre managers, investors, retailers and property managers. Dr Stocchi believes this research could offer insights relevant to Australian towns and business districts seeking ways to revitalise their commercial hearts, to shy away from the implications of the global financial crisis.

Read the original research article: Stocchi, L., Hart, C., & Haji, I. (2016). Understanding the town centre customer experience (TCCE). Journal of Marketing Management, 32(17-18), 1562-1587.

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Cathy Hart

Cathy Hart

Dr Hart is Senior Lecturer in Retailing and Leader of the Town Centres Research Interest Group at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University. Originally a textile designer, Cathy worked in the textile and retail fashion industries before joining Loughborough University as Sainsbury Retail Fellow.
Dr Hart has researched and published widely in the areas of retail image, assortment and consumer behaviour. She began researching town centre consumers over 12 years ago, successfully leading a range of funded research projects. Her ongoing research into the ‘Town centre customer experience’ has been funded by the Economic, Social and Research Council with support from project partners including Argos, the Association of Convenience Stores, Action for Market Towns, Boots UK and the British Retail Consortium.

Lara Stocchi

Lara Stocchi

Dr Lara Stocchi is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. She is an experienced researcher in two key marketing fields: consumer buying behaviour and consumer memory. Other areas of research interest include branding and the measurement of brand performance, and digital marketing (consumer perceptions of mobile applications). She published in several high-rank marketing journals and is Associate Editor for the Journal of Consumer Behaviour.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.