High street revolution where no town is left behind
Empowering Welsh high streets to compete in a digital world is vital if our communities – and the businesses that serve them – are to survive and thrive post-Covid, argues tech entrepreneur Victoria Mann
IN SEPTEMBER 2019, Professor Philip Brown published a wideranging review into how the rapid advances in digital innovation will impact the economy and future of work in Wales.
In Wales 4.0: Delivering Economic Transformation for a Better Future Of Work, Prof Brown described how Wales faces “a race against time” to reposition itself in the UK and the wider world: “To do nothing is to forfeit the chance to create a different outlook for Wales and a better future of work.”
This review was, of course, published before coronavirus struck.
High streets across Wales have been left reeling by the pandemic and suffered a disastrous end to 2020. Year on year, footfall in December fell by more than 50%, worse than the average drop across the UK.
Even before the virus, businesses were already struggling to stay open.
Research by the Local Data Company in late 2019 showed that 14.6% of shops in Welsh high streets stood empty, with mid and west Wales the worst-hit areas.
Rebuilding thriving high streets will be crucial to Wales’ economic recovery. Beyond protecting jobs and livelihoods, we need vibrant local community hubs where people want to live and work – a pressing need that has been thrown into sharp focus by the pandemic. If we are to rise to this challenge, it’s clear that business as usual won’t be enough.
Post-Covid, local authorities across Wales are faced with the task of breathing life back into high streets that were already in trouble. Competing against the big online retailers will become even more difficult now that consumers are used to shopping online. Reversing consumer behaviour trends expedited by the pandemic will be a big ask.
Yet I believe it is possible to imagine a different future for our high streets.
There is plenty to inspire us in Treorchy, which beat 39 towns across the UK to scoop the title of Best British High Street in January 2020. The judges paid tribute to how independent businesses worked together to turn the valley town badly hit by the collapse of coal-mining into a desirable shopping destination.
Treorchy shows us what’s possible when communities work together to create a unique sense of place.
But for every Treorchy, there are plenty of post-industrial and rural towns struggling to survive.
As we face the scale of the challenges ahead, we need to listen to town leaders and business-owners. They have been telling us for a long time that piecemeal initiatives such as free parking and road improvements won’t be enough.
If we are to breathe life back into our ailing high streets, we need to drag them into the digital era. And with dwindling public resources, a smart, joined-up approach to creating genuinely united digital towns and high streets is the only way to ensure nowhere gets left behind. The good news is that we have the homegrown technology in Wales to make this happen.
I have long been fascinated by technology’s potential to empower small businesses to work together and connect with customers on a hyper-local scale.
I developed NearMeNow to help businesses in the same geographical area join forces via a single consumer-facing app that creates an interactive, searchable, community experience.
Recognised by Retail Insider as a Top 60 Global Retail Innovation, the TownTech platform allows visitors to interact and engage with their physical surroundings while enabling businesses to harness the power of digital marketing for zero investment.
In practice, it means that anyone entering a town will be able to access information on tourism, the local food and drink and retail offer, arts and culture and town trails.
The platform will also offer e-commerce functionality, interactive shop windows and links to the local transport infrastructure. The technology gives residents and visitors a digital sense of place while allowing businesses to compete with big online retailers for no outlay.
Using the same solution for all towns offers consumers a seamless experience wherever they visit. It will also give local authorities an effective, real-time communication channel with local businesses and access to better data on which to base decision-making.
Under the banner of the Better Lives, Closer to Home challenge, funded by the Welsh Government in collaboration with SBRI Centre of Excellence and Cardiff Capital Region, we have secured a contract to expedite work on this revolutionary approach to town digital transformation.
We’re delighted to work with Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly county borough councils, local business leaders in Treorchy and BT to gain critical insight and feedback, and would encourage other stakeholders to get in touch if they would like to contribute.
As a proud daughter of the Valleys, I am under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing our high streets.
For local authority economic regeneration and town teams operating with limited resources, the task of regenerating high streets can feel like pushing a snowball up a mountain.
Which is why it’s time we started taking digital infrastructure as seriously as the Tarmac on our roads.
One of NearMeNow’s key benefits is its ability to empower businesses that would struggle to compete alone via digital platforms.
Independent businesses often don’t have the knowledge or resources to invest in transformational tech, plus it doesn’t make sense from a user perspective.
Consumers want a straightforward way of interacting with their physical environment, so why not allow towns and high streets to work together to harness the power of digital technology?
I believe that we have an opportunity in Wales to lead the way in a truly innovative digital transformation of our high streets by empowering consumers and businesses alike. We are more likely to achieve the scale of digital transformation needed through a joined-up approach across local authorities and Welsh Government.
I believe this is vital to achieving the swift transformation we need if high streets are to recover and become future-proofed, sustainable community hubs that can meet changing consumer needs.
Harnessing the power of technology developed here in Wales in a way that puts consumers and independent businesses at the heart of the solution is, I believe, the only way to ensure that no town is left behind. High streets can and should play a key role in our economic recovery, but we need political vision and will to make that happen.
Empowering local businesses to compete in a digital age is the only way to rebuild better places closer to home, wherever we are in Wales.
■ Victoria Mann is the founder of NearMeNow, a TownTech platform recognised by Retail Insider as a Top 60 Global Retail Innovation, and winner of App Of The Year at Wales Online’s Digital Awards.