The Retail Excellence Ireland Town and City Review was published at the weekend in the Sunday Independent newspaper. This is the follow up to the Town and City Framework document which is available at www.retailexcellence.ie.
It has to be said that it is a useful exercise, and hats-off to REI for taking this step. It is the first national consumer survey of how various cohorts of people perceive and use town centres, through interviews of some 11,000 people in September of this year. It also includes some 5,000 ‘Stakeholder’ interview which are presumed to be REI members in the various towns.
It shows the most important factor in town and city visits is proximity to living place, and second most the standard of retailer. Public transport is bottom of the priority list, followed by events and promotions. Parking issues are shown to have about the same level of importance as dining and entertainment alternatives, and atmosphere.
The issue of proximity has been largely ignored in REI’s publicity in favour of ‘Retail Mix’ but it is statistically the most important issue. So all those Retail Impact Statements that tell us people will travel an hour for a shopping centre need to be questioned. Proximity could also be interpreted as ease of access (by private car). So if you have to sit in 5 less sets of traffic lights to get to the retail park along the by-pass, this would be a major factor. It also shows Planning Policies which only encourage public transport access to town centres, and discourage car visits may be having a serious detrimental effect (This reflects Portas Review in UK).
The results also reflect more detailed studies from Philadelphia that show successful commercial corridors have 3 key characteristics: 1.Store Density, 2.Store mix and 3. Parking availability. As repeatedly referred to here, Marylebone High Street London is a great example of the importance of getting the right retail mix, if people are willing to learn the lessons.
At the end of the day this isn’t a league table of 100 towns in Ireland. How does a town know what measures in can take to climb up the league table? REI don’t seem keen to point the finger at any particular town or county, and say you’re doing a good or a bad job.
The report has 3 recommended measures: 1) form a town team, 2) develop a town plan, and 3) use the town and city framework document produced by REI. But this isn’t really enough. We all know setting up committees or preparing nice plans can be absolutely meaningless unless we ask what they do, who does it, and where financial support comes from? What is the role of the Town and County Managers credited at the back of the report for their assistance? Will they start supporting town centre partnerships, and bottom-up initiatives? What do they know about retail mix? They like spending public money on county halls, libraries and roads.
Evidence from America has found the most Effective Programmatic Interventions are:
§ Leadership and Management
§ Actions taken to prevent crime
§ Improvements to the overall physical environment
If we learn from the TCM/BIDs experience, we can save a lot of time. Thankfully, REI are doing a good job in doing some research, but the Minister and his department have got to do more than turn up for the launch.