Bill Grimsey, who we interviewed on this blog, presented his Alternative Future for the High Street review to ministers and business leaders at parliament yesterday.

I’ve been taking a closer look at the review, and its recommendations on the ‘Networked High Street’ in particular. 

While the web is clearly a factor in the travails of high street retailers, there are other issues, such as rates and the general state of the economy. 

So how can technology help? 

The report’s recommendations

The report has 31 recommendations, including: 

  • Accept that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that bricks and mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor to create thriving high streets and town centres.
  • Set an objective to repopulate high streets and town centres as community hubs encompassing: more housing, education, arts, entertainment, business/office space, health and leisure and some shops.
  • Prepare for a ‘wired town’ vision or ‘networked high streets’ that puts libraries and other public spaces at the centre of each community based on the technology that exists today and will develop in the future.
  • Establish a ‘Digital Maturity Demographic Profile’ for each town to prepare for ‘networked high streets’ and tailor connection and communicationstrategies accordingly.
  • Reintroduce immediately the 2015 business rates revaluation to realign property values and freeze business rates from 2014.
  • The business rates system needs a root and branch review to establish a flexible system that will reflect changes in economic conditions as they occur.
  • Make it easier for motorists to shop by building in a two hour free high street and town centre carparking system to the overall business plan for the location.

The digital high street

We were critical of the Portas Review as it seemed to completely neglect the part that digital had to play in the high street, so I welcome the fact that this review seems to understand not only the threat posed by the internet, but also the opportunities it provides. 

The report presents a vision of a ‘networked high street’, explained here: 

Each player is a node in our high street, but at the moment they are operating independently, rather than as a network. They may be using a web page to hold information in an archive-like manner, but they are not responding in real-time to their consumers and other nodes.

We can describe them as an analogue formation, where there is no real-time communication between different retailers and between services. Local government is not connected to shops and key agencies are not linked up to what is happening on the high street.

Facebook, if used for a retailer or service, is not integrated into any real-time high street Daily Deals or Daily Events calendar, and no integrated online marketing is used on a day-to-day basis. 

To strengthen the high street, we need to increase the number of mutual connections between the nodes or network participants (retail, services, local government, job centres and all others). The more mutual connections, the more adaptive the high street network becomes in response to changes in the success of individuals shops and services.

In other words, the report calls for free and reliable public wi-fi in town centres which will enable shops and local businesses to inform and target users when they access it. 

I have supported the use of wi-fi by retailers and other businesses, and it certainly makes sense to have that reliability of connection, which makes it easier for mobile users to find stores, places to eat, films to see and so on. 

I also think there is much potential in targeting mobile users with offers and deals while they’re out in the high street, presumably in purchase mode. 

However, since many retailers are now offering wi-fi in stores, it’s possible that some will see free public wi-fi as a threat, as it potentially removes people from their own networks where they can own customers. 

The report presents three scenarios, including that of a busy mum who checks in to high street wi-fi, this activating her ‘all-categories high street loyalty card’. Through this, she can be shown daily deals, book appointments, and view prices and offers from retailers. 

Other scenarios are presented, including the use of this network to communicate travel information, and the use of social to ask for advice on a new dress, or share photos with friends, something which tech like Tweet mirrors allows. 

The point is that, since people are using this tech anyway, whether through mobile internet or retailers’ own wi-fi, the high street needs to adapt to this and use it to its advantage wherever possible. 

I can see that such a network would benefit those smaller businesses who perhaps lack the resources and time to create their own mobile sites, and by connecting to this shared network they could promote their product and services. 

In addition, if shoppers could rely on steady internet access, then high street businesses would have more incentive to update and maintain their Google+ Local listings and those on sites like Yelp. 

As Google uses this information to serve up local and mobile search results, the importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated. 

In summary

While it may not be the whole answer – crippling business rates alone are responsible for many failures – the use of technology on the high street is here to stay, and businesses need to adapt to that. 

This review further supports Econsultancy’s own research on How The Internet Can Save The High Street, which we published last year as a kind of antidote to the Portas study.

After all, people are using their smartphones as a shopping aid already, and this is an upward trend. 

A recent Econsultancy/Toluna survey found that more than 57% of smartphone users had searched for information on their devices while shopping. 

What type of information or service have you searched for on your smartphone while in-store?

I do wonder whether, given the fact that the current government has thrown its support behind the Portas Review (partially at least), this report will get the attention it deserves from politicians. 

However, for its understanding of the issues affecting the high street, and the role that the internet has to play, the review should be applauded. 

Whether the networked high streets idea is adopted or not (and it’s certainly something which has potential), retailers and other high street businesses do need to use the web and mobile technology to their advantage. 

While tweet mirrors, interactive displays and video screens used by retailers like Burberry and M&S can be expensive, there are plenty of ways retailers can use the web without it costing the earth. 

For instance, a simple mobile site, or optimising listings on Google+ Local will provide them with greater visibility for mobile searchers, and an advantage over local competitors.