The importance of shopper research in high street regeneration

Amid the hue and cry to save our traditional High Streets, I find it amazing how most people fail to focus on the obvious – carrying out some research into what local residents i.e. customers want and their shopping habits.

So, when a public meeting was called locally in the Town Hall to discuss the state of Midsomer Norton’s High Street, following the closure of several long-established businesses, I entered the fray! Feelings were running high, the general view is that something needed to be done when a 100-year-old hardware store and travel agents simply closed to be replaced by presumably yet more charity shops. What are the Town Council and the Local Authority doing to help?

The survey we designed was available both online and as a hard copy, printed in the local free newspaper, the Journal. The local community radio station Somer Valley FM also helped promote the survey to its listeners and volunteer. In total 540 people responded with 82% living in and around the town. The results enabled us to analyse shopping habits and spend by age, sex and location – giving the town truly actionable data for the first time on which to develop its high street strategy.

However, the real insight into this data comes from the comparison of shopping behaviour between those who are frequent visitors to MSN High Street, those visiting more than once a month and those who visit less frequently.

The study shows that infrequent visitors to Midsomer Norton High Street are higher spenders, they also spend more online. Going forward, the key challenge for those wishing to rejuvenate the High Street is to identify how the infrequent shoppers can be encouraged to spend more of their monthly budget in Midsomer Norton.

In terms of shopping “destinations”, it’s clear that online outperforms all the town’s rival destinations, such as Bath, Wells, Frome and Shepton Mallet. Practically speaking, it’s difficult to see how Midsomer Norton could compete with City-based shopping attractions. However, analysis of the comments left by survey respondents showed that people are twice as likely to articulate a comparison with Frome than Bath.

One of the most revealing elements of the survey came from Shoppers saying what they felt were the attributes of their ideal local High Street, prioritising them and then scoring Midsomer Norton against the ideal.

The Features of the Ideal High Street

Shoppers clearly said they wanted good customer service, car parking and price, along with the variety of shops, as the top priorities. Whilst Midsomer Norton High Street performs relatively well in terms of customer service when it comes to access to public toilets and the appearance of the High Street, these are areas where improvements clearly need to be made.

The results were published in the press and the local town magazine and already the Councils, Landlords and Chamber of Commerce traders have begun working on an action plan to address the issues raised by the survey:

  • Strategic Development of the Retail Offering – On the face of it, improving the variety of shops in Midsomer Norton High Street is an incredibly challenging task. The list of retailers identified in the survey provides an obvious starting point for this process. 
  • Online Shopping & Social Media – The magnitude of internet shopping is obvious to see, meaning all businesses should consider how they present themselves online and through social media.
  • High Street Appearance – Landlords and retail tenants should be encouraged to decorate and repair their frontages to support the community’s efforts to regenerate the town. In addition ideas could be explored to ‘dress’ the windows of vacant shops.
  • Signage – There is an opportunity to improve visitor signage at all levels – major routes, around town and at a pedestrian level.
  • Competitor Analysis – Are local traders undertaking any form of competitor analysis? Something as simple as a visit to a competing business, in a competing location, could identify valuable insight into price, promotions and customer service.

Interestingly, rather than the usual calls for the Councils to spend large amounts of money, the act of sharing the results with the whole community has shown signs of general ownership and empowerment of the issues being faced. For example, whilst both Councils are looking to improve signage to the toilets, which people don’t seem to know are available, local shopkeepers are also offering to open their own toilet facilities to the general public.