There is a growing sense of belief within its own circles that the mobile technology sector is on the brink of finding a way to reverse the decline in footfall on the UK’s high streets and town centres.

Despite the relentless advances in technology making it simple for customers to purchase items online and rendering it unnecessary to walk to their local shops, thought leaders in the mobile world are working on solutions that could yet boost local economies and provide a platform for individual towns and cities to thrive.

Many of these theories were presented in central London last week at mobile operators association GSMA’s Energising the Mobile High Street: Retail Proposition event, which gathered together figures from the mobile, finance and retail industries, as well as representatives from local authorities and tech solution providers.

Paul Crutchley, Strategic Engagement Director at GSMA, told Essential Retail that the necessary components could now be in place for mobile technology to have a lasting positive impact on bricks and mortar retail.

“It’s the best opportunity we’ve ever had to get people moving around the high street and interacting with their local communities,” he explained.

“We’re at an intersection with the growth of technology, where many people are coming together to provide a service to consumers, and it’s involving many merchants and applications.”

It is this position that the GSMA has been working to reach: a joined-up approach from all stakeholders, looking at how technology can reinvigorate the high street and retail in general. Although there has been talk of progress in this field for a number of years, the different parts of the eco system have previously worked in silos – but now there appears to be a shift towards collaboration.

“We’ve had a payment position; we’ve had a retail/merchant position; now we’ve got a broader look, including a town centre perspective,” added Crutchley. “It’s one of the biggest opportunities in mobile.”

Mobile wallet

So what is fuelling this confidence? For one, GSMA has been working alongside and encouraging collaboration between representatives from all affected parties and this has helped in the production of a Mobile Commerce in Retail white paper that the organisation hopes will provide a framework for the roll-out of mobile-led retail.

Crutchley also said that Weve, a joint venture between mobile operators EE, Telefonica UK (O2) and Vodafone UK, could be “a great catalyst to broader collaboration that will help support mCommerce success”.

Weve has been developing a mobile marketing and wallet service that has a strong focus on aiding customer loyalty and influencing consumer behaviour, and aims to involve as many retailers as possible. The technology is scheduled to be implemented with its first set of merchants during the first half of next year.

Functionality wise, the wallet system is contained on an individual’s phone and can – at the consumer’s control – be fed with data such as purchase history, loyalty points and vouchers. It also utilises location-based technology that can direct consumers to relevant offers throughout their shopping or leisure experience.

For this to be widely adopted, though, all parties agree that the system must be consistent across the different retailer and mobile operator platforms; it must also be simple to use and be seamlessly integrated into a customer’s purchase journey.

Weve’s Owen Geddes admitted that for the system to succeed it has to have mass market appeal, use an open framework and operate alongside retailers’ individual apps and mobile sites.

“Consistency of user experience from merchant to merchant is key – if not, consumers will be scared off,” he argued, during his presentation at last week's event.

Turning point

Town centre representatives, meanwhile, are now much keener to embrace technology as a way of attracting people back on to the high street, compared to the situation before when Crutchley admitted he was “shocked at the lack of knowledge some town centre managers had” in terms of technology and digital opportunity.

Martin Blackwell, CEO at the Association of Town Centre Management (ATCM), told delegates at last week’s GSMA event that town centres always have been the heart of the community and “will remain at the heart of the community”, but consumers now want to use technology to seek out the choice, value and experience that visiting a high street can offer.

Blackwell mentioned that the ATCM is learning from companies which began their lives operating online, but which are now looking at town centres to test new concepts and extend their brands. The association’s ideas include combining gamification and loyalty to digitalise the high street and attract people of all ages into their local towns. Much of these notions would fit well in a mobile wallet system, such as the one proposed by Weve.

“We’ve got to a turning point,” said Blackwell, who admitted he once felt like he was fighting a losing battle against technology. “The tech systems we have discussed [at the GSMA event] suggest change is imminent.”

There have been a plethora of national campaigns to get people shopping locally, all with various degrees of success. Local Data Company research indicates that vacancy rates on the UK high street have stayed consistent at around 14% over the last three years, but there is a high level of churn as many retailers close down after a short trading period, often suffering from low footfall in their local communities.

Clare Rayner, who leads the Independent Retailer Month initiative in the UK, said that there are a number of straightforward processes retailers can implement into a mobile strategy to help boost the chance of customers finding them.

“Having a well-presented, accurate listing on Google Places is key to being found in local search,” she explained.

“Retailers must realise that shoppers don’t even have to specify their location; simply by using a mobile device their location will be interpreted and places near to them will be presented in the results.

“After search, customers turn to mobile for various reasons – price comparison, product information and consumer reviews – so retailers with eCommerce platforms as well as stores need to make sure that they are taking advantage of things like Google shopping, that their website content includes comprehensive product detail and that they make sure they embed consumer reviews.”

Caution

There is, of course, some caution regarding the extent mCommerce really can transform bricks and mortar retail, as Adrian Cannon’s update at the GSMA event, on behalf of the near-field communication steering board, highlighted. It is undoubtedly a huge task to get so many parties working towards the same goal – let alone ultimately convincing consumers to embrace a mobile wallet system.

However, there is a growing feeling that mobile can help stimulate growth in local economies if consumer engagement takes hold.

Recent Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) research shows that three-quarters of the top 50 UK retailers had a mobile optimised site, but only 8% had a tablet-optimised portal. Of the brands that have an app (62%), just 48% of those apps were transactional, creating barriers to purchases being made.

These findings suggest there are still fundamental elements of mobile strategy missing from retailers’ marketing campaigns, even though they clearly acknowledge the technology is now crucial if they are to reach their consumers and conduct more business.

IAB’s data goes someway to showing just how much potential still exists in the mobile commerce revolution. And with all the separate parties – be it mobile operator, retailer, local council or town association – now seemingly engaged in conversation with one another, there’s a chance that technology could yet provide the fillip local retail centres require to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

You can download the GSMA white paper Mobile Commerce in Retail here.