Digital remedy for High Street malaise

british-high-streetIndustry leaders, organised as the Digital High Street Advisory Board, have announced a five-year strategy to reinvigorate the UK’s traditional High Streets and proposed the adoption of four major inter-dependent digital initiatives by 2020.

The Digital High Street 2020 Report addresses how stakeholders in town centre communities, including small businesses, public service providers and charities, can benefit from integrating traditional High Streets with digital technologies, and compete more favourably to serve customers as they embrace proliferating digital alternatives.

It observes that although a “digital divide” is growing between those national and international firms investing aggressively in digital capabilities, and the many small, independent High Street proprietors, the groups are interdependent and success of those across the divide is critical to the success of our communities.

The Report also reinforces the importance of the digital economy to driving the economic and social vibrancy of High Streets, which stand to generate billions of pounds of additional revenue from digital interactions with the public. The Report suggests a framework to accelerate their capabilities through private, public and third-sector collaborations and leadership from local authorities. Helen Dickinson, Director General of the British Retail Consortium was upbeat when speaking about the report and its findings, “British high streets have weathered sweeping changes in society, economic cycles, property development and retail expansion, and the seismic impact of digital technology on communications, entertainment and commerce. Our communities have survived these changes to varying degrees but while what makes a successful high street has not fundamentally changed, the ability to achieve wider future success is now absolutely dependent on embracing the impact of digital and the recommendations of this report provide a strategy to do just that.”

High Street needs to change to remain viable. 24/7 “always on” internet ‘window shopping’ has changed shopping forever. The range of goods, pricing comparisons and home delivery can appear more attractive to consumers, while ease of parking and lack of congestion can make out of town retail parks appear attractive when compared to what could be the intrinsic benefits of many High Streets. New solutions in retailing, logistics and traffic management are required to enable towns and cities to regenerate their High Streets to cope, take advantage of technological changes and provide solutions that mix virtual and physical in new ways, offering genuinely new and attractive shopping experiences.

With 60% of adults using a mobile phone or tablet to access the internet on the go, digital transformation of high streets would generate significant social and economic value for our communities around the country. High streets are worth investing in with more than £150bn of retail sales influenced by digital, but retailers with services that fail to meet customers’ expectations risk losing over £12bn sales a year. Only half of small businesses (SMEs) and charities have a website and just 33% of SMEs currently transact online, as 31% of all such organisations lack basic online skills. Recent estimates show that digital technology could unlock £18.8 billion of revenue for SMEs, while reducing their costs by up to 20% and increasing customer satisfaction and retention. The estimated annual social and economic value of digital inclusion for a new users going online is £1,064, rising to £3,568 for a more advanced individual or small business user. “Today, the vast majority of UK shoppers research online before they buy from a store. This means that every business is a digital business because every consumer is a digital consumer. We hope that this report will be a first step towards improving digital access and expertise among small businesses and help them grow faster and reach more customers,” said  Peter Fitzgerald, Director, Google UK.

Digital High Street Advisory Board 2020, recommendations:

  1. Town centres need to significantly raise infrastructure and connectivity standards for 2020, by developing sufficient digital access through infrastructure beyond existing Government targets for 2017, including; i) universal fixed connectivity of not less than 24 Mbps, with 75% of the UK’s residences and businesses having access to fixed broadband speeds of 100 Mbps, ii) high speed mobile data coverage with 4G available, from multiple operators, to 98% of the population across both indoor and outdoor geographies, and iii) clear public access WiFi standards, for consumer experiences to ensure non-disruptive handoffs as consumers move among venues and providers and to encourage broader deployment.
  2. Basic Digital Skills program to be developed to eliminate the current gap in digital skills in our communities by 2020, to ensure that all digitally capable residents of our communities – individuals, SMEs and the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors have basic digital skills. Go ON UK to coordinate the management, funding and implementation of digital skills priorities as a holistic programme, with a range of public and private delivery partners. “Lloyds Business Digital Index research has shown that 31% of organisations in the UK are lacking Basic Digital Skills. This means they could be missing out on a range of benefits, such as taking payments or donations online, or having access to a wider range of services and suppliers. Lowering this figure represents huge value both socially and economically for the UK. The proposed digital apprentices will proactively help these organisations to realise the value of being digitally skilled, and potentially help them generate more revenue from customers and donors,” said Baroness Lane-Fox, Chair Go ON UK.
  3. The first High Street Digital Lab will provide the UK’s 1,200 towns and their businesses with digital capabilities from a central not-for-profit organisation. This will include the aggregation of generally available technologies, digital applications, tools, methods and training programmes, in order to provide a platform for digital consumer services for each community across the UK on behalf of its local authority, high street businesses and charities. Services will be in the form of a separate marketplace, or portal, for each community, launched and operated by the Lab through a local team of digital apprentices, leveraging TheGreatBritishHighStreet.co.uk as an external consumer brand.
  4. In a first for the UK, a Digital High Street Health Index will enable towns, national and local authorities to i) assess the competitiveness of a particular local high street community or high streets generally, ii) understand the key measures of economic value creation from digital developments, and iii) inspire local authorities, town teams and private enterprises to make positive change. “Over the next five years, we will continue to see digital technology redefining how consumers, businesses and public services interact. The Digital High Street Health Index will be a unique and critically essential part of enabling towns and villages to understand how they can put technology at the heart of their community, so that local customers and citizens can truly benefit,” commented Ben Dowd, Business Director at O2. “Crucially, they must work with retailers to ensure they understand how technology can complement – not replace – their physical presence, as those that fail to take an integrated approach risk being left behind.

John Walden, Chief Executive of Home Retail Group and Chairman of The Digital High Street Advisory Board, said, “The digital revolution is arguably the most disruptive factor affecting our communities, but its effects are not often considered central to high street revitalisation. Many members of UK town centres are struggling to keep up with consumers in terms of their digital capabilities, and given the pace of digital growth many towns lack sufficient infrastructure and basic digital skills. I believe that the business-oriented Board has provided recommendations that, taken together, can restore our High Streets to vibrancy in a digital future, into 2020 and beyond.”

You can read and download the report from the Great British High Street site here.