How online engagement creates physical retail resilience

Months of successive national lockdowns provided consumers with the rare opportunity to accumulate high levels of savings (reaching nearly £75bn in Q1 2021, according to Statista). The ensuing summer of revenge spending brought customers back to shopping in their town centres. Now that summer is over, and with Christmas campaigns beginning against a media backdrop of inflation fears and predictions of shortages, our sector is preparing itself for the challenges of the coming months, writes Nick Hilton, Partner, Retail & Leisure, in Retail Destination magazine.

During the height of the pandemic, destination marketing quickly pivoted to digital-only strategies to maintain connections with customers and help retailers embrace click & collect, many for the first time. Digital campaigns built around creative content, seasonal interest and brand partnerships successfully helped build engagement, to the extent that for some centres, Facebook engagement increased by as much as 65% and website users by as much as 120%.

Digital gains translate to footfall growth

As locations began to reopen, destination marketing strategies evolved to incorporate hybrid physical and digital enlivenment. Average organic social media growth is at 44% per scheme so far in 2021, and website traffic for our schemes has generated more than two million visitors. These gains made in building digital communities has proven beneficial during re-openings, translating into real measurable footfall gains.

At one Leamington Spa centre, online content promoting a summer “Beats & Eats” event featuring live music on a small stage secured online engagement of more than 30%, which translated into footfall increases of 9% week on week. Results like these prove that strong online followings are a powerful tool in creating intent to visit physical destinations, especially important for reaching customers now accustomed to online shopping, or those still apprehensive of physical shopping.

Building on the continued trend of domestic tourism, creative events delivered in collaboration with the wider town centre or with retailers themselves added value to the customer experience. Response to these events is going from strength to strength, especially those such as “Walkden Into Space” which featured rocket, astronaut and alien statues, offering a socially-distanced selfie opportunity designed to drive footfall, while remaining cautious around physical contact.

Unique and engaging family activities during school holidays and weekends; alongside ticketed events that build consumer confidence via demonstrable safety measures, have performed particularly well. For example, for Halloween a ticketed escape room event for which participants stayed in their own groups, booked online, was organised alongside the usual pumpkin design and carving activities.

Tailor destination marketing to community need

Stronger digital communities also enabled centre teams to use their platforms to integrate communications plans with on-site management, ensuring customers were aware of restrictions and guidelines ahead of their visit, to manage expectations, provide clarity, and build confidence.

Balancing safety and wellbeing with customer entertainment and experience came to the fore during the remobilisation of retail. This meant adapting the marketing approach to reflect evolving operational requirements and budgets, while supporting brands, increasing footfall, and animating the retail environment.

With different regions experiencing varying levels of confidence amid continued uncertainty, this requires tailored marketing campaigns that respect local sentiment and reflect community needs. One centre felt confident enough to re-introduce workshop-based Halloween activities, while another has opted for a more cautious socially distanced outdoor approach featuring street theatre and stilt-walkers.

Digital-led marketing strategies have helped destinations retain customer interest, loyalty and engagement during the lockdowns and phased re-openings of the past 18 months. The Activate team, which produces more than 3000 pieces of digital content every month, has seen the value of quality and creativity in both digital and physical platforms. This joined up approach has kept destinations top of mind, building confidence, driving engagement, and reigniting loyalty among consumers.

To sustain the gains of summer into the Christmas shopping season and beyond, it is vital to leverage destination marketing in order to add value to the customer experience, and help local communities build confidence in their retail destinations.

By Nick Hilton, Partner, Retail & Leisure, Workman

A version of this article originally appeared in Retail Destination magazine

To find out more about the Activate Destination Marketing Service visit >

If you have a retail scheme, office campus or business park where the marketing needs to work harder, contact either Michelle Atack or Andrew Sparrow.

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