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Post-Covid Resilience of Commuter Towns

Utilising open source and aggregated retail data through the CDRC secure data service, co-funded Ph.D. student Abigail Hill has created an index of retail resilience and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic for English commuter towns. Business partner Retail Economics has interested in improving understanding of the impacts of increased ‘working from home’ on commuter town high streets and their immediate and longer-term impacts upon retail resilience.

Abigail’s analysis develops six case studies and finds that of these Guildford has the most resilient commuter town high street, while Rochdale has the least. Cluster analysis also reveals that despite Rochdale high street’s relative weakness, some of the retail areas that adjoin it have better prospects, especially where retail activity projects a strong and unified image. GIS analysis also found that there are specific parts of both Guildford and Rochdale high streets that share similar levels of retail vacancy and occupier turnover and which may each require tailored interventions to restore stability.

This research project was carried out as part of a co-funded Ph.D. with the Local Data Company (LDC) under the ESRC Accelerating Business Collaboration scheme. The work had two related components.

First, a resilience index for commuter towns was developed using data sources to represent four domains: wealth, vacancy, retail composition and consumer spending. Office for National Statistics (ONS) open data were used to create indicators of local income, occupational structure, house prices, relative location and consumer spending. Local Data Company data on location, retail unit type and vacancy were used to create summary indicators of high street and adjoining area vacancy rates, levels of trading in essential retail categories, share of chain store occupancy and presence of leisure venues. The methodology entailed data standardisation and factor analysis.

In the second stage, the highest and lowest ranked towns were used to develop detailed case studies. Retail boundaries were developed using LDC data and used to explore the vitality of high streets and adjoining areas. DBSCAN and hierarchical clustering techniques were used to identify areas within high streets that merited locally targeted interventions.

The majority of the data sources used were open data. Secure LDC data were also used to create data aggregations used to create retail area boundaries.

Reflecting on the project, Retail Economics CEO Richard Lim said:

This was an extremely valuable piece of research to Retail Economics which focused on a very important emerging trend in the industry. The research was timely, relevant and forward looking. The process was also well-managed and all stakeholders worked together well to add value in their respective areas of expertise.

In particular, Abi was well organised, enthusiastic and a great communicator which helped keep the project on track and delivered within the time scales set out at the start of the year. The final presentation of the research was delivered in an engaging and succinct manner, aligning very much to the business community.

We will look to leverage value out of the research in our internal analysis to assess the impact of Covid-19 on shopping habits with a particular focus on the commuter belt. There is a depth of quality and rigour within the research that provides confidence in the initial findings that we can share with our clients. Overall, an excellent piece of research.

The Retail Economics website is https://www.retaileconomics.co.uk/about.