When looking at the bigger picture in 2024, we can probably throw the crystal ball out of the window … or at least upcycle it as a nice door stop! Why? Well, the writing is on the wall for the UK economy for this year. The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that in the 3 months to October 2023, GDP flatlined (0.0% growth) and then fell 0.3% in October. Whether we go into recession or not, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that the economy isn’t in a great place.
Inflation currently stands at 3.9% – still high and a long way off the Bank of England’s 2% target. Consumers will continue to have less money in their pockets and, for the time being, the need to ‘hunker down’ on spending will persist. The City is forecasting a drop in interest rates in 2024 to bolster growth but, even if this happens, we may not see any real impact on household spending until 2025.
As such, it’s hard to be positive about what 2024 has in store for us. With a cooling property market, widespread corporate layoffs and high numbers of SME insolvencies last year (27,677 in 2023, a 28% increase on 2022 and 80% increase on 2021), the real question is what’s going to change the UK’s fortunes?
Some say a General Election, though any new government in 2024 will have its hands tied. UK national debt recently surpassed 100% of GDP. There’s very little scope for strategic tax cuts or new government spending. Radical thinking will be needed to find greener pastures for the economy over the next parliamentary term.
It seems the most we can hope for by the end of 2024 is that the economy gradually starts to recover with inflation coming down to around 2.8% and interest rates falling to 4.5%. Although this assumes we don’t experience any further supply-side shocks from the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.
At a local level, the role of the Town Manager will be absolutely crucial in 2024. Many businesses will continue to struggle. The temptation for consumers to stay at home and scour the Internet for cheap deals will be huge. It’s down to us to make sure we give local people every reason to be part of their community and to love their town centres.
So what levers can Town Managers pull to create better environments for levy payers in 2024? On top of all the fantastic work that’s being done already, here are some thoughts:
When 2024 starts to look a lot like ‘more of 2023’, you could consider tech as a game changer.
AI Tools For SMEs
Increasing local engagement and business transactions
You have probably heard of ChatGPT. You may even use it yourself. For those who don’t know this new technology will draft content for you, on almost any subject!
AI content-generation capabilities are being integrated into most e-commerce and content platforms. Shopify now automatically suggests sales copy when you upload a product image. Ebay does the same when you try and sell your old sofa. Canva will generate social media text and edit pictures for you using prompts. It’s going to be everywhere.
It’s these new capabilities that are transforming the potential for small businesses to conduct effective marketing and e-commerce campaigns. What used to take an extra person, or a freelance specialist, can now be achieved in an hour or two. It’s just a case of getting things set up.
As they say, knowledge is power! So Creative BasildON is hosting a “Empowering Success: Small Business Strategies with AI Tools Workshop” in January 2024. Workshops like these can help spread the word. Perhaps something like this would work in your town?
Facial Recognition Software
Ensuring town centres are safe and attractive places to visit
As some town managers are all too aware, there’s been an alarming surge in shoplifting, anti-social behaviour and violence over the last 12 months. In a growing number of towns, facial recognition technology is providing an answer.
In London, the Metropolitan Police is using live facial recogntion software in partnership with retailers to identify and arrest prolific shoplifters. In Croydon, a similar initiative led by the Met recently led to ten arrests. Go! Southampton is using the technology to prevent offenders identified through the local Business Crime Reduction Partnership scheme entering night-time economy venues.
The popularity of this tech is almost certain to rise during 2024. Is it time we put privacy concerns to one side in favour of greater social benefits? Do Town Managers encourage use of this tech as part of BCRP schemes? You decide.
Dedicated technology solutions for towns and communities
Yes, tech can be a game changer. However, the kind of tech developed in Silicon Valley might not fit the needs of your local community. It might be too expensive, prevent you from accessing the right data … or perhaps it simply doesn’t do what you want it to do!
2024 will see the Community Tech movement continue to grow in the UK. This is where community organisations use technology on their own terms to “strengthen democracy, create community wealth and take better care of each other”. This was our starting point at Loqiva – our goals being to help local businesses and organisations to collaborate more effectively, and reduce the amount of money leaking from UK town centres to tech multinationals. All sorts of interesting local solutions are being developed through the Community Tech movement. Take a moment to explore it further!
Retail is adjusting to changing consumer needs and expectations. Leverage new trends and opportunities for your town centre.
Signposting consumers to sustainable retail options in town centres
Despite the cost-of-living crisis, 65% of shoppers are prepared to pay more for eco-friendly products and services. This includes choosing products with less packaging, choosing local produce and eating less meat.
The trend in responsible purchasing has been led by a number of pioneering brands. Take Patagonia. You can take any of their products to your local Patagonia store and have it mended for free (or, a small charge if it’s a more technical item).
The likes of Levi’s, H&M, M&S all have re-engineered their supply chains to save water and secure their fabrics from sustainable sources. 57 per cent of the fabrics used by H&M group are recycled or sustainably sourced. The company’s goal is to get to 100 per cent sustainable by 2030.
Similarly, there are more than 200+ zero-waste shops on high streets up and down the country. From 1st October 2023, the UK government implemented a ban on single use plastics too. When given the opportunity, consumers will make the effort to purchase responsibly. Let’s appeal to those 65% of shoppers by promoting opportunities local to your town or city.
New Shopping Experiences
Promoting new shopping experiences created by leading brands on the high street
Retailers have reduced their real estate portfolios over the last few years and they need to make their existing sites work harder. Part of the approach will be to make their stores destinations for consumers to visit.
Expect to see new in-store experiences in 2024 with virtual try-ons, hyper-personalisations and seamless purchasing. Brands will spend more on pop-ups to tour these new experiences, pairing this with self-service check-outs (as seen in Uniqlo and Decathlon).
Take advantage of these investments by major brands to create revenue opportunities for other local retailers and hospitality outlets too.
Town Centre Experiences
There’s been a lot of discussion around what will drive town centre footfall for new generations of consumers. Watch out for these innovative experiences coming to your town centre!
Powering retail and hospitality with gaming and social entertainment
What constituted entertainment for 16-24 year olds in the 1990s (think drinking to excess and club culture!) is a far cry from what appeals to the same age group today. NHS studies in 2023 show that nearly 40% of 16-24 years olds haven’t drunk any alcohol within the last 12 months.
Town centre entertainment is needed to change to attract a new generation – Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012). Enter Gravity. A heady mix of AR escapism, go-karting and gaming on a department-store scale, Gravity is attracting Gen Z in droves to locations in Wandsworth, Liverpool and Castleford. Expect to see more of these popping up all over the country in 2024/5. Attract a Gravity or a similar franchise to your town centre where possible!
Immersive Art Experiences
Attract touring exhibitions promoting traditional and contemporary art and culture
What used to be a visit to a museum, or art gallery, is now being brought to life with lights, projections, music and entertainment. They are a huge hit with families. Check out exhibitions like ‘Van Gogh Alive’ and ‘Genesis’ which are being toured all over the world.
If you want to find out just how creative this kind of experience can get, have a look at Meow Wolf (only available in the US for now). Could a partnership with one of these tours end up being your headline town centre attraction in 2024?