Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Bad news for Oxford - or is it really?

Retail Week has run a report today by Ben Cooper about an announced delay in developing the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford. The report says that in the opinion of research group CACI that this will hamper Oxford's bid to achieve what would in their opinion be the 30th most important shopping destination in the UK.

So what? Have we become so enamoured with rankings and superlatives that they have taken on a life of their own and as such have sufficient real meaning that they deserve to be an end in their own right? Oxford may not achieve this apparently coveted position in the minds of those who give a damn (I have to admit that I am unsure as to who precisely covets it...) but it does not alter one iota the position that, in this case, Oxford holds in reality.

Oxford has significant standing as a visitor attraction and any retailer worth his or her salt ought to be able to make a perfectly good living in such a vibrant city if they target their audience accurately and ensure that their marketing mix is appropriate to the particular customer mix that the city offers. By being 30th in the rankings will not mean that potential customers in Arbroath are suddenly going to wake up on a Saturday morning and say "I hear Oxford's reached No 30 in the charts - I know! Let's go shopping there today". The good citizens of Arbroath will continue to make their way to those shops that they find convenient and which offers them the goods they want at the price they wish to pay - without the inconvenience of staying overnight.

One reality that is being imposed by the combined stresses of the effects of the global credit crunch and the cost of oil is that the hinterland of the average shopping destination is almost certainly shrinking. So to have national league tables of shopping centres is as meaningful as a national league table for car fuel prices at the pump - if it's too far away then it really has no meaning at all to the punter. Oxford, when compared to the centres that it currently is actually in direct competition with will be ranked far higher than 30th. Oxford has the strengths that are peculiar to Oxford, with its pull of visitors from across the globe as tourists - could Milton Keynes, for instance, ever really trouble Oxford as competition for the Pounds, the Euros, the Dollars and the Yen in the pockets of those visitors; yet MK is developing a significant and broad shopping interest in a purpose built modern centre and it is only an hour away by car from Oxford. No they are in different markets for those whom they seek to attract from a distance.

But this is not about Oxford, this is about meaningless comparators that presumably do mean something to someone. The point that I am labouring to make here is that local authorities, as lead authorities in planning matters and who in the modern age are largely responsible for the vision that is their town centres, ought not to be drawn into this charade of league tables for the sake of it. Your town will have its attributes, it will have its peculiar strengths and it will have a definable hinterland beyond which the hopes of attracting visitors are small, no matter how well placed you might be in the league tables. Individual stores may have a hinterland that are well beyond that of the town generally, but this will not mean that town is likely to attract significant general visitors from equal distances.

It is, of course, a fact that there is a gravitational effect for retail centres and generally speaking the larger they are the greater the hinterland they will achieve. It is also a fact that the greter the non-retail entertainment and leisure offer, the greater the hinterland - because it will become a day out. The rational plan is to ensure that your local shopping core has all the characteristics that will draw the bulk of the custom from that area surrounding the centre in terms of affordable travel distances and to be the best for your local residential population and those visitors who will be arriving anyway. Let us ditch the notion that a shopping destination will ever be anything but sub-regional in nature and ever likely to be in absolute competition with the other end of the country.

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