Retail Focused Funded PhD Available – Suburban Mobility: Shopping and Older People

A fully funded three year PhD is available for Autumn 2019 start. This research project explores features of the retail environment that enable older people to use local neighbourhood and high street shops as well as participate and keep mobile in their ‘everyday lives’.

Background information

3-year PhD studentship based in the faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling, commencing 1st October 2019. The studentship includes tuition fees and a stipend (based on 18/19 rates this will be c.£15,009 per year) for three years. The studentship will lead to a PhD from the University of Stirling.

The project will be supervised by Prof. Judith Phillips who has a track record in research on ageing and environment and Prof. Leigh Sparks, with expertise and experience of research on retail environments.

In addition to monthly supervisory meetings, the doctoral student will receive mentoring and support from the Dementia and Ageing Research group (particularly architects in design) and by colleagues in the School of Management, Retail Studies group. Both research groups run regular seminars and training events and will provide opportunities for the student to meet and benefit from the experience of other students and staff with relevant expertise. The student will also be able to take advantage of the training events and support through the Institute of Advanced Studies. The successful candidate will have the opportunity to develop skills and experience in interdisciplinary research as part of a team of researchers in ageing.

Project Overview

The research project explores features of the retail environment that enable older people to use local neighbourhood and high street shops as well as participate and keep mobile in their ‘everyday lives’. The main aims are to determine the barriers and enablers of older people’s access and mobility to and within retail environments (particularly local high streets), and to propose, visualise and evaluate negotiated design modifications for overcoming the barriers and promoting enablers. It adopts a collaborative approach to develop innovative solutions and uses a mixed methods approach in new research to investigate mobility patterns of older people in relation to their local retail environment; the barriers and enablers they experience in their journey to, and inside, shops; and the improvements that could be made. It provides a platform to develop tools to communicate results of this research to retailers.

Context and background

The retail sector has continued to undergo profound change, primarily through out-of-town retailing, online shopping, and an unbalanced financial playing field producing a crisis in town centres and high street retailing. Various reports have called for strategies to revitalise town centres. These can only be sustainable through individual towns addressing their unique opportunities and challenges (social, economic, physical, and historical circumstances).This requires detailed exploration of the needs of the people who use a place, how and why they travel to local shops, and what barriers they face both now and in the future. There is a gap in our knowledge of how the retail sector balances the needs of their customers and their desire to sell goods when designing retail environments and, in particular, how to design retail environments that are more attractive to older people. Most shop design initiatives concern large retailers and focus on accessibility issues. There is some stress on creating appropriate ‘atmospheres’ that are efficient and user-friendly, but the social aspects are often only considered in large shopping malls or supermarkets. We know little of the extent to which small businesses engineer good in-store design for an ageing population. Local shops also play a crucial community role as ‘social hubs’ that ‘support’ older people’s emotional and social needs.

The shift to out-of-town retail parks, reliance on the car and the development of online shopping threaten the sustainability of suburban and high street shops. The decline of local and high street stores potentially increases older people’s social exclusion given 48% of people over 70 do not have full driving licences (or may have lost confidence to drive) and 72% of people over 75 do not use the internet. The study will contribute towards filling a knowledge gap by focusing on older people’s whole shopping experiences and journeys and their use of different retail options e.g. high street, neighbourhood shops, retail outlets and internet shopping. Through an investigation of the whole shopping experience we will explore the balance between different forms of shopping (click and collect; face to face); what balance do older people prefer and how does the choice of option impact on older people who lose confidence or mobility.

It is important for older people to retain independence and wellbeing if they are to remain active and engaged in society. Outdoor activity is beneficial to physical and mental health as well as social engagement: encouraging mobility in the local neighbourhood is crucial for postponing the shrinkage of older peoples’ radius of movement in later life. Mobility is encouraged by having accessible shops in close proximity and in safe, supportive environments. Consumer focus on convenience has risen in recent years, but it is unclear if these new, convenient opportunities consider older, local users. Few studies concentrate specifically on the local suburban neighbourhood in which many older people ‘age in place’.

Shopping benefits health, social interaction and wellbeing, yet many obstacles may deter people from going out, such as provision of public toilets, busy streets with high level signs and complex road layouts if driving, uncertainty over reliability of public transport, accessibility of shops at street level, difficulties in their internal configuration and facilities (lifts, doors and walkways) and perceptions of the environment in relation to safety, quality and ambience. The study explores this neglected area by focusing holistically on whole journeys, taking account of elements such as lighting, parking, pavements, social interaction, interior and exterior design. This distinctive approach will focus on typical, everyday whole journey shopping trips undertaken by older people viewed in the context of their whole shopping experience. Information about why older people take routes or forms of transportation, what motivates them, and how they think the external built environment and internal design of shops could be improved will contribute to developing strategies for interventions and modifications that support older people.

The applied research will contribute to debates on lifetime neighbourhoods, inclusive design, usability and accessibility, and age-friendly communities to ensure that all stages of a person’s journey and the interior retail environment are conceptualised as an integrated whole system. The project will contribute to the debate on what kinds of retail ‘places’ (real and virtual) best support the wellbeing of ageing populations

Older people are developing different images of age with varied social relationships, lifestyles, and self-perceptions. A change is required in the way we view older people as active contributors to the economy (consumers, residents, entrepreneurs and workers) and how we regard the utility of town centres and high streets. Older people can help rejuvenate local places through their incomes and wealth as consumers but also as residents, workers and entrepreneurs, playing out different lifestyles and behaviours. The PhD is an opportunity to contribute to this reshaping of image of both older people as active citizens and to the discussion around the rejuvenation and sustainability of the high street at a critical time in its development.

Eligibility and availability

The successful candidate will have:

  • A degree level qualification (preferably 2.1) in a relevant subject
  • An MRes or relevant postgraduate qualification
  • A background and interest in research in ageing
  • An interest in appropriate methodologies for the project
  • Skills in time management and completion of work

How do I apply?

Applications should include a covering letter; a full CV including the names of two referees (at least one referee should be an academic); a transcript/record of detailed grades achieved during previous university studies; a sample of the candidate’s written academic work; and a short summary (maximum 500 words) written by the candidate that explains how they would approach the project’s research. The short summary of how the candidate would approach the research should refer to the project proposal and will be used to assess the applicant’s knowledge of the research field and of relevant methodological issues. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview in Stirling or via online methods.

Closing date: Friday 16th August 2019.  Interviews will be held on Friday 27th September

Applications should be sent, by post or email, to:

Suzannah Hunter
Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Stirling

Further information

Candidates are welcome to make informal enquiries about the academic project, which should be directed to Professor Judith Phillips telephone: 01786 467022.

You can also informally approach Leigh Sparks ( by email or phone (01786 467024).

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Academics, Ageing, Architecture, Community, Consumers, Design, Health, Healthy Ageing, High Streets, Older consumers, PhD, Places, Planning, Public Realm, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopping, Streets, Streetscapes, Town Centre Living, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, University of Stirling and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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