John Walden, chief executive of Home Retail Group, which owns Argos and Homebase, has urged the government to create a ‘High Street Laboratory’ which would offer small businesses advice alongside skills training to help them navigate the latest digital technology.
“The digital revolution is arguably the most disruptive factor affecting our communities, but its effects are not often considered central to high street revitalisation,” said Walden, who also serves as chairman of The Digital High Streets Advisory Board.
“Many members of UK town centres are struggling to keep up with consumers in terms of their digital capabilities, and given the pace of digital growth many towns lack sufficient infrastructure and basic digital skills.”
It comes as part of a wider report issued today (9 March) from the Board which found that over half of all small high street retailers and charities did not have a website while more than a quarter lacked sufficient online skills.
The idea of a Laboratory was backed by high streets minister, Penny Mordaunt, who said it could prove “invaluable” in the ongoing efforts to reinvigorate local high streets.
“It has potential to help [small businesses] expand their reach and drive people to the high street and help them compete with big businesses and is an idea worth looking at more closely,” she explained.
The Laboratory was among a number of suggestions Walden made in the independent ‘Digital High Street Report’, initiated by the government and Future High Streets Forum.
He also recommended a UK High Street Digital Health Index which would assess and benchmark the digital health of towns and councils across key measures including infrastructure, basic digital skills, high street attraction and digital engagement.
Meanwhile better connectivity – including broadband, mobile and WiFi – was highlighted as a key area of improvement for 2020 and beyond.
Director of Google UK, Peter Fitzgerald, weighed in on the report’s suggestions, saying the change in consumer shopping habits now means every business is a digital business “because every consumer is a digital consumer”.
“We hope that this report will be a first step towards improving digital access and expertise among small businesses and help them grow faster and reach more customers,” he added.
Independent experts will now be appointed to advise on how the proposals could be implemented.
Last year Walden emabarked on a drive to reposition Argos for a digital future by building on initiatives such as the launch of its ‘My Account’ function across its online channels, as well as its ‘1click’ reservation service, its search functions and how it presents real-time stock availability by location.