The global pandemic and rising e-commerce seem intrinsically linked, with Covid-19 billed as the virus that inadvertently killed our already ailing high streets. Surely, then, as retailers shift their efforts online footfall analysis is becoming an increasingly irrelevant way to analyse British businesses’ operations both physically and digitally? Well, perhaps not.
“I would say it is absolutely key,” says Diane Wehrle, insights director at retail footfall counter and in-store analytics group Springboard. With data stretching back to 2009, and 5,000 individual devices situated at 600 individual town, shopping centre, and retail park locations, the company has ample knowledge to back its claims.
“Whilst we have seen some shift between online spending and bricks and mortar spending during Covid-19, it hasn’t changed so significantly as to make footfall data irrelevant,” says Wehrle. “In fact,” she adds, “it’s probably made it more relevant”.
Wehrle estimates that roughly 75% of all spend is still in store, with this being “driven by footfall”. While spend levels may be varying as online shopping continues to grow, for Wehrle “that is actually where footfall comes in because it’s identifying consumer behaviour”. She adds: “It’s real consumer behaviour, not a proxy for consumer behaviour and that’s why it is so important.
“While online plays a big role in our purchasing journey, we know that we want to go to stores. We know that when stores open, footfall goes up massively because we’re social and we like visiting stores. So, really understanding activity and understanding how that changes is absolutely key to understanding success of destinations and those stores within them.”
Changing consumer activity, at whatever pace, does little to eradicate the need for footfall analysis. Wehrle highlights that while some may argue that sales are the most important way of unearthing the performance of physical retail, footfall digs a little deeper. She says that every retailer now needs to “justify the existence of their store”, and this can be done by “understanding how each store is performing”.
She adds: “As a shopper, you may not go into a store necessarily to make a transaction, but what they [retailers] need to realise is whether you are going to the store at all, and then look at that in relation to online sales.”
Wehrle casts her mind back to a recent weekend, where she went to a shop to look around and try an item on before buying the same piece online. “For the store my footfall was still important,” she says. “But it’s important in the overall picture. It’s not just about looking only at store sales and only online sales, it’s looking at the retail proposition as a whole.”
While measuring footfall can thus be crucial for retailers acting within high streets, shopping centres, and retail outlets in understanding how their individual sites are performing, it can also analyse wider trends for physical shopping locations as a whole.
Wehrle notes the changes seen to footfall as a result of the pandemic by splitting physical retail into three key sections; high streets, shopping centres, and retail parks. “One of the key trends we’ve seen throughout Covid-19 is the fact that footfall in our bigger cities dropped much more than it did in our smaller high streets,” she says. However, over recent weeks there has been “a slow uptick in footfall in regional and big cities as people are starting to drift back”.
As for shopping centres, Wehrle has noticed a similar pattern. Although footfall is roughly 25% below pre-pandemic levels across the UK’s shopping centres, she says that “people are starting to be a bit braver and go out to the big shopping centres, especially as we can eat there now”.
Yet, the clear winner in terms of retained footfall has been the “darling of Covid-19” that is retail parks. Sitting just 2% behind pre-Covid levels, retail parks have evidently performed well due to their ability for social distancing and outdoor spaces. However, Wehrle argues that this trend has remained beyond the lifting of restrictions, saying: “We haven’t had any choice, but now we have the choice we’re still going because they are convenient and people still feel safe when they’re there.”
Pair this ability to understand the total activity in certain areas with a firm’s individual performance, both digitally and physically, and retailers can realise the worth of individual sites. Wehrle states that this is particularly true in a period of declining physical activity for retailers in deciding where their “pinch point” is. “Is it getting so low as to make your store unviable maybe in a month or two months or a year? If so, then that allows the retailer to make a decision about whether they keep that store or dispose of that store,” she says.
Even when highlighting the use of other metrics, Wehrle is adamant that footfall remains key. She talks of the capture rate: “how many people in the street then walk through the door into the store”. She then mentions the conversion rate: “When they are in the store, how many of those have come into the store to buy something”. Yet, while these metrics undoubtedly have their benefits, “at the back end of all this, underpinning this, is footfall. Without footfall you wouldn’t have any of these other metrics,” Wehrle says.
Online spending is sticking even after the lifting of high street restrictions. However, this does not spell the end for physical retail, and can in many ways prove the vitality of footfall analysis. Changing consumer behaviours are shifting sales online, but not completely, and physical retail still has a role to play in the spend process – meaning footfall remains ever as important.
Retailers can use a “basket of metrics” to analyse whether their sites are in the right positions, performing well in those positions, and proving their worth to the company. However, many of these metrics still come under the wider umbrella of footfall, and many of the ones that don’t simply scratch the surface of consumer behaviours. So, for Wehrle, this is why “footfall is absolutely key”.