Digital is alarmingly absent from Portas’ review

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Mentions of new technology and digital platforms such as mobile, geo-location and hyperlocal services into town centres and local high streets were conspicuous by their absence in Mary Portas’ review of the high street.

While many of the measures outlined, such as cutting red tape and addressing business rates and parking, are essential if town centres are going to have any kind of resurgence. It seems naïve for the 55-page Government commissioned report to skip over any mentions of how the growing use of mobile devices and emerging technologies such as NFC could be part of the solution for town centres.

A growing number of consumers are fully entrenched in the digital 21st century reality of iPads, Kindles and apps and while Portas admitted that our high streets still act as they did in the 60s and need to get up to speed, in her report she calls the internet “one of the key threats to retail on our high streets”. She doesn’t, however, recognise that the internet could be one of the saviours of our high street if used together to create the kind of experience that shoppers are after.

Instead, one of Portas’ more “radical” suggestions to breathe a bit of life into high streets is more bingo nights. Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK play bingo but I hardly think it’s the kind of forward looking innovative idea that is going to rescue town centres.

Portas uses phrases like “inspire people” and “innovate and embrace change” but then goes on to make pedestrian and uninspiring suggestions like bingo and youth clubs as part of her so called “re-imagined” high street.

She briefly mentions wifi being a good idea but the most sustained focus on utilising technology comes in the form of a “virtual high street” to act as an online “go to” for everything in the local area. This would include promotions and offers from local retailers and creating a “community digital portal” for newly formed Town Teams designed to help people share information, volunteer for local schemes and build local networks. This is all well and good, but many towns and council already operate these kinds of sites, they just need improving.

Any future vision of the high street is irrelevant if you ignore the massive role that online and digital plays in consumers’ lives. This is something Google is working on, with a range of mobile advertising solutions designed for retailers to encourage shoppers back on to the high street.

Google is offering targeting options that will allow retailers to specifically target shoppers with relevant messaging to the local area including maps and driving directions to get shoppers into stores and town centres and aid shopping research.

I just wish the Portas review had looked further afield for solutions and brought in some of this fabulous expertise to marry up town centres with new consumer behaviours. It would be interesting to see what the Government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox thinks about the alarming absence of technology in the recommendations.

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