Diane Wehrle is a founding director of Springboard, a provider of retail data analytics, retail traffic counting and customer sentiment tracking for brands, shopping centers and downtowns worldwide. Wehrle is regarded as a leading expert on retail and retail destinations, with knowledge and expertise in understanding current and emerging retail issues and consumer trends. She is a regular commentator on the performance of retail for national broadcast and print media, appearing regularly on BBC, ITV, Sky News and CNBC.
She has 30 years’ experience in retail and is a founding director of Springboard, which was established in 2002.
Wehrle leads all of Springboard’s insights and authors its regular commentaries, articles, reviews and topical reports. She specializes in delivering intelligence and insights on both current retail performance and long-term retail trends to retailers, hospitality occupiers, landlords, investors and place managers.
Wehrle holds an MSc in property investment and is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Place Management, one of only 35 senior fellows worldwide. Diane was also named as one of the world’s 100 top retail influencers in 2021 by Rethink Retail.
How long have you been in the business?
I’m one of the founding directors of the business, back in 2002, so 19 years in this business but I have been in retail analytics and insights since I graduated from college 34 years ago.
What brought you into the industry?
When I was growing up, my parents had a retail mom-and-pop business, so I’ve always been involved in retail. I used to work in the business, serving customers in the stores. They were fashion boutiques in different areas of central London. I then studied business at college, and during that I spent a year in the hospitality industry which led me into real estate. When I graduated, I worked at a real estate consultancy in Central London and got involved with the retail team. After that, I worked for a retail data business and that brought me to Springboard.
Who influences you?
In my early years of working, it was my mother. My mother started a business when I was 12 and she’d had no experience at all in retail. But what she did bring to the business what I know now is the very essence of retail success — customer service, good quality, organization and keeping an eye on trends. All of those things that are important in retail, she naturally did without any training at all. Though they had very little capital to invest in the business, my parents created a very successful retail on the back of customer service and attention to detail. She’s really influenced me.
Latterly, Steve (Booth, Springboard CEO) in terms of helping me understand how to engage with new clients whether they are stores, landlords or downtowns. He’s a salesman through and through but the it’s never “sell and run” with Steve; he’s in it the long haul, developing a customer relationship that is based on a true partnership and which delivers a real ROI for our customers. The mantra he extols is “if they’re not talking to us, they’re talking to someone else” which sums up the need for a partnership approach.
The past year has seen major changes to brick-and-mortar retail, some an acceleration of previous trends. What were the most significant?
Obviously, online and e-commerce have grown as people have not wanted to shop in stores as much. But what we’ve seen from our ped traffic data and sales data – and we collect this from stores and destinations 24/7 with daily delivery – is a growth in localism. People are working at home and not traveling as far so inevitably they’re not going to shopping malls, centers or large downtowns as much. They’ve rediscovered their local neighborhood centers. So, smaller downtowns and neighbourhood centers that were struggling before have seen a resurgence in interest, as well as mom and pop businesses that have been able to adapt their businesses and trading models quickly to support their local community. That localism has become quite a significant trend in both the U.S. and the U.K. We’ve changed our lives. Most of us are still working at home at least half the time, which of course has cascaded through to how we shop.
Despite this, our latest U.S. Retail Consumer Report has shown that more people are starting to work out of the home and moving back to the office. At this early stage we don’t know how it’s going to play out as we’ve never had a pandemic before. Will it become a hybrid model? That will then play into how we use our retail destinations. That’s a wait-and-see, thing really. It will be fascinating to see the acceleration of that.
Which retail adaptations will remain now that we’re in the post Covid-19 era?
I’ve certainly seen the growth in the pop-up retail store. In the U.K., we had an actual firm lockdown where in the U.S. it was more fluid, varying from state to state. In the U.K., sadly, it’s led to some retailers not reopening their stores which has led to an increase in vacant stores. We’re seeing a growing trend among owners and landlords to let out those stores on a temporary basis which they were more reluctant to do pre Covid, and we’re seeing new, innovative retailers coming through. They’re taking the opportunity to take pop-ups as with retail starting to open this enables them to test their proposition using a store. Just a few years ago, people didn’t believe a pop-up would work for a whole host of reasons. But landlords are becoming much more reasonable, and with the amount of vacant space they are realizing they have to be much more flexible. That’s happening in both the U.K. and in the U.S. in large city centers and smaller downtowns.
In the U.K., there’s a real demand for drive-throughs. We came to them late in the U.K. But there is recognition that people are still feeling vulnerable in going to restaurants, but if they’re working from home, they’ll drive through to get a coffee. They want it quick and easy. And BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store) is happening across the U.S. with more and more and retailers adapting their processes to accommodate that. It’s an easy segue into getting them comfortable with the brick-and-mortar experience. Maybe with the next trip, they get out of the car and go into the store. It’s really encouraging for brick-and-mortar.
Do U.S. and U.K. trends vary much?
U.S. pedestrian traffic has been much more stable than in the U.K. The U.S didn’t have a complete lockdown as the U.K. did where traffic was just 20% of the level of the year before in March and April 2020. When the U.K. reopened in the summer of 2020, it had a huge uplift in pedestrian traffic not seen across the U.S. as different states have had different rules regarding re-openings. The U.S. is sticking at around 50% of the 2019 level whilst in the U.K. pedestrian traffic is now around 25% of the 2019 level.
Why is now the time for Springboard to expand its business in the U.S.?
Springboard made its first move into the U.S. in 2007 and it took a few years for us to accelerate. But we realized early on that automated pedestrian traffic monitoring didn’t really exist in U.S. downtowns, and it was something that was sorely needed and that we were very practiced at. We’d already been in business in the U.K. for five years, and were very experienced, particularly in downtowns which can be hugely complex environments. By 2012 we were making serious inroads into the U.S, having won contracts with Times Square Alliance and Grand Central Partnership in NYC and then Philadelphia and Chicago to name a few .
Then from 2012 onwards our presence in the U.S really started to amplify. Our particular skill is creating superb analytics, not just delivering data but insight which enables our customers in all verticals – downtowns, retail, malls and shopping centers – to grow their businesses. We make pedestrian traffic data meaningful to our clients, and we’re also able to embrace different types of retail environments. We’re a commercially led business, and so are ready and excited to adapt our offer and deliverables to what our customers want and their needs. It’s so exciting for us, and such a large market compared to the U.K. A small retail network in the U.S. has got 800 stores whilst in the U.K., that’s a very big retail network.
Are there major differences between urban and suburban retail?
That comes back to localism. In both the U.S. and the U.K., major cities have been hit harder in terms of the loss of pedestrian traffic than smaller downtowns. The reasons emanate from a blend of factors —the huge working populations that are usually present in cities New York, Chicago and Philadelphia are not there with many employees now working from home; tourism, especially international tourism, is proportionately more important for larger cities. And inevitably people have been reluctant to utilize public transport which is a critical connector for Central London which is part of the reason why Central London has been hit hardest of any city in the U.K.
What keeps you up at night?
I have real passion for enabling retail destinations and businesses to maximise their potential, and I know that a key part of this is ensuring they are able to understand their performance. For retail to grow and prosper in an increasingly digital world in which there are a plethora of performance metrics, bricks and mortar retail must have the same capability. So for me, the 4am thought is about how Springboard as a business can deliver an exceptional service that meets the requirements of our customers and how we can act as a true partner to them. If we’re not delivering the insights needed by our clients, that concerns me. It’s all about quality of service and relationships in our business. That’s what keeps me up at night — ensuring we’re delivering that quality of service that quite rightly is expected of us.