A technical report published on 27 January 2017 confirms that UK town centres can be classified into four types: comparison, holiday, speciality and convenience/community. The report is an outcome of the Bringing Big Data to Small Users research and development project, which is co-funded by Innovate, the UK's innovation agency, and comes from researchers at Cardiff University and Manchester Metropolitan University using data supplied by Springboard Limited.

The technical report details the approach adopted to identify the four types of centre using K-Means clustering, Principal Components Analysis, and other statistical analysis techniques. The data supplied by Springboard comes from 421 counters in traditional retail locations that each supply 8760 readings per year to show pedestrian flows or footfall.

Comparison shopping centres tend to be located in the larger town and city centres and their monthly signatures can be identified by a footfall peak in December, coinciding with the Christmas preparation period. Holiday towns are busier in the summer months and footfall drops right down in the winter, whilst convenience/community centres tend to have more of a flat profile throughout all the months of the year. Finally, speciality centres seem to be somewhat of a “hybrid” type between comparison and holiday, insofar as they have peaks in the summer and in December, although these peaks are not as pronounced as in pure comparison or holiday centres.

Why does this classification matter? There are several reasons. There appears to be preliminary evidence, that will be researched further, that centres with footfall patterns adhering most closely to one of the four activity type profiles tend to perform better than those without a clear profile. In other words, towns that have a definite 'offer' for their catchment appear to attract more customers. Retailers who are located in places that have higher footfall tend to perform better. It also seems that centres that have different activity profiles, benefit from adopting different approaches to vitality and viability. Understanding how a centre is used can inform the development of an appropriate strategy for the centre and enable initiatives to be prioritised.

The research now continues to look at whether knowledge of the type of centre can inform its stakeholders on how best to improve the collective offer and also to understand whether changes in footfall profile over time, there is data from numerous years, are correlated with changing performance.