Consumer or business, who knows best?

Collaboration is key to the success of places, but place managers know the difficulties of securing that at times. We have seen a couple of examples of why that might be so in recent research. It would appear that visitors/consumers and businesses may perceive things very differently. We summarise some of the articles below as we think it may help in the development of your collaborative approach. Links to the full articles are attached.

Southampton, UK

In a recently published paper on changes in the Southern Bargate sector of Southampton, a secondary retail area, the authors found differences between retailer and user perceptions of the area and how it could be improved (Turner, Bahaj and Teli 2018). This is despite the fact that retailers were confident that they knew what shoppers wanted as they ‘often spoke to them’. The research, though, found that many visitors were not actually there to shop.  

Asked about what was important to the area, retailers said ‘surrounding shops and businesses’ and ‘available car parking spaces and times’ ranked top. The top 3 factors for the consumers interviewed, however, were ‘open public space’, ‘green space’ and ‘cultural and social activities’. 43% of visitors interviewed did not see ‘available car parking and times’ as having any importance (this echoes consumer responses in 10 towns found in a research study published in 2016 that found that parking was not as important as stores, product, access and layout in motivating a town centre visit (Stocchi, Hart and Haji 2016).)

Thinking about the future, the ‘reoccupation of vacant shops’ was seen as the most important intervention that could be made by both retailers and the consumers. However, whilst retailers were concerned about what type of business occupied the space, with some 40% wanting restrictions on who occupied the space, the consumer research showed little concern about what uses were introduced so long as there was activity. The authors conclude that this supports other research that ‘going to the shops’ is not just about retail but about the whole experience (Stocchi and colleagues had found that the majority of shoppers ‘always’ have refreshments when shopping and that liking and enjoying the atmosphere was important).

There were other clear divides in opinion. 85% of consumers surveyed wanted trading hours to be changed or extended, but 36% of retailers said they would be unwilling to change. The report suggests that as the retailers participating in the research were actually the more responsive and enthusiastic (many chose not to participate), this percentage would be higher amongst the whole retail community. Indeed the research found that “a large proportion of retailers were opposed to any change in their default behaviour”.

56% of the retailers surveyed said that traders are the most important stakeholder for regenerating a secondary retail area but 45% had never attended a retail group meeting and 40% said they never would. Retailer dissatisfaction was found to be high, but the authors found that rather than stimulate action this had led to a fear of drastic change and an unwillingness to be involved. The authors argue that retailers then do not understand change that is happening and many said they were targeting older customers as they had more to spend, but the research showed that it was 18-29 year olds who were the most frequent visitors to the area.

Brisbane, Australia

Research in Brisbane also identified different perceptions between business owners and consumers. Barbara Yen and colleagues (2015) looked at how people travelled to restaurants in the city.

The researchers surveyed almost 400 restaurant users and some 44 restaurant owners over a week. The surveys asked customers about their actual travel choice on the day, the restaurateurs were asked about how people travel to their restaurant.

Restaurateurs believed that 52% of customers arrived by car, but only 18% of customers actually did so.

Restaurateurs believed that 27% of customers walked and 23% actually did so. Restaurateurs believed that 11% would arrive by bus but 19% did so and that just 2% would come by train but 17% did so.

Whilst restaurateurs believed that just 2% would arrive by bike, scooter or motorbike, in fact 11% did. Other customers arrived by taxi and ferry.

The research also found that those who did drive were more optimistic that car parking would be available than the restaurateurs who operate in the area.

There were also significant differences between the perception of restaurateurs as to where the majority of their income came from and actual income sources. In the survey, restaurateurs believed 59% of their income came from people who arrived by car whereas the reality was this was just 19%.

25% of the income came from people who walked against a perception from the restaurateurs of just 12%. 41% of income came from people who used public transport to arrive against the perception from restaurateurs that this would be just 19%.

The research article suggests these misperceptions could lead to decisions being made that would not benefit the sustainability of the area or the businesses concerned. Though restaurateurs wanted more investment in parking, the findings of this research suggest that more investment in public transport would see their income rise more, though the authors acknowledge that further survey work would have to be done to understand the potential.

What this means

It is often easy to get a retail or business perspective on a town or city centre. Indeed this is a key part of the development of a business plan for a BID. What these two pieces of research show is that this may not be the only perspective on the place. Indeed both studies would suggest that doing what businesses want may not reflect consumer/visitor desires or experiences and potentially this could be detrimental to the place. It is worth trying to get a broader insight, because ultimately the customer decides if your place will thrive.

Stocchi L, Hart C, Haji I (2016) Understanding the Town Centre Customer Experience (TCCE) Journal of Marketing Management 32 (17-18) 1562-1587 available as an Open Access article at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0267257X.2016.1242510.

Turner P, Bahaj AB, Teli D (2018) Aspirations of retailers and visitors towards the regeneration of declining streets in cities Future Cities and Environment available at https://futurecitiesandenvironment.com/articles/10.5334/fce.45/

Yen, B.T., Burke, M., Tseng, W.C., Ghafoor, M., Mulley, C. and Moutou, C., 2015, September. Do restaurant precincts need more parking? Differences in business perceptions and customer travel behaviour in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Australasian Transport Research Forum (ATRF), 37th, 2015, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia available at http://atrf.info/papers/2015/files/ATRF2015_Resubmission_84.pdf