A government sponsored report says high streets could increase footfall and make billions of pounds in additional revenue by making more of the latest digital technology available to small shopkeepers.

The Digital High Street Report 2020 found that local businesses and independent traders are “missing a trick” by not keeping up with the “digitally savvy” modern shopper and using more free and low cost digital technologies.

'Today, the vast majority of UK shoppers research online before they buy from a store. This means that every business is a digital business,' says Google UK director © iStock/LDProd

The independent report – initiated by government and the business-led Future High Streets Forum - proposes the creation of a new high street “laboratory” which would provide a one stop shop where small shopkeepers, businesses and communities can get advice on what they need to do to go digital.

A number of other recommendations have been made that could support town centres to be “more thriving places people want to visit”, work and shop in by the report’s author John Walden, chief executive of Home Retail Group - which owns Argos - and chairman of the Future High Streets Forum.

Walden's proposals include establishing the first UK High Street Digital Health Index, an interactive benchmark to assess the digital health of towns and councils across key measures, including infrastructure, basic digital skills, high street attraction and digital engagement. There should also be plans for town centre infrastructure and connectivity for 2020 and beyond, including broadband, mobile and wifi.

In addition, the High Street Digital Laboratory would provide ready to use digital tools, dedicated digital skills training, as well as a network of digital apprenticeships for every UK town centre. There should also be a goal to eliminate the gap in basic digital skills by 2020 for individuals, small businesses and charities.

Walden said: “Many 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. I believe that our business-oriented board has provided recommendations that, taken together, can restore our high streets to vibrancy in a digital future, into 2020 and beyond.”

High streets minister Penny Mordaunt said independent experts will now be appointed to advise on how the Digital Laboratory and the High Street Digital Health Index could give small traders the training, advice and skills they need to compete, and to provide advice to communities on the infrastructure they need in place.

Mordaunt said: “High streets contribute billions of pounds to the economy and we know digital is the way forward so it is vitally important traders and town centres keep up with the way people shop if they are to continue to thrive.

“The new Digital Laboratory is one idea that could ensure small businesses have the tools and skills they need to compete with the big players. We want to future proof our high streets so they can remain at the heart the community for decades to come.”

Director of Google UK Peter Fitzgerald said: “Today, the vast majority of UK shoppers research online before they buy from a store. This means that every business is a digital business because every consumer is a digital consumer. We hope this report will be a first step towards improving digital access and expertise among small businesses, and will help them grow faster and reach more customers.”

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