It’s no secret that the face of the traditional British High Street is changing, in fact, it has undergone arguably its most dramatic transformation in the last five years than it ever has before. Whilst some rejoice and others mourn the loss of high street fashion chains and retail behemoths, one of the worst performing retail uses in recent years has been estate agents.
With over 150 branch closures last year, we must ask ourselves – is there still a need for estate agents to have a physical presence on the High Street?
Having made the leap from over a decade spent as Partner at one of UK’s leading high street agents, where I managed lettings for one of the company’s key central branches, to take up a new role at Rentify, an innovative new online lettings business, it’s safe to say that I’m well versed in this debate, having now seen both sides. My latest career move clearly demonstrates where I sit – and it couldn’t be farther from the fence on this one.
With the overwhelming majority of tenants now making direct approaches through online platforms such as Rightmove, it’s hard to argue that branches are essential in bringing in business – they are not.
There is certainly a case to be had for a physical presence of sorts, a central HQ or perhaps regional hubs so as to maintain brand awareness and customer interface, but the concept of a branch on every high street is outdated and sadly the costs have now become cripplingly expensive.
Technology though, offers a more fruitful future for lettings agents like myself and indeed the customer. The digital revolution, particularly in the lettings market, has made the entire property search process easier, more transparent and much more efficient than ever before and generally speaking, if it’s good news for the customer it tends to be good news for business.
Technology – and a shift in mindset – has also opened endless possibilities when it comes to flexible working. Admittedly this is still a relatively new concept in the world of property and estate agency but will no doubt continue to make advances as businesses realise their agents can be just as productive (if not more) not sitting in the office at great expense, but rather at home (at no cost!) or other similarly appropriate workspace.
Reducing these unnecessary overheads frees the business up to invest in other parts of the company where previously it would not have been able – staff training, customer benefits, website and tech improvements etc.
One area that cannot be overlooked however is the undoubtedly significant role that branches play in two key areas; brand awareness and customer interface.
There is arguably no better advert for an estate agent than a branch on every high street however if people aren’t walking into those branches and they are costing more than they are bringing in, they simply do not make sense anymore.
Instead, agents should look at new, modern and often more effective ways of showcasing their brand – the use of social media influencers, TV advertising and OOH campaigns can be just as powerful and reach a far greater audience than the local catchment.
Customer service is of course paramount and it’s understandable that some might be doubtful of an online estate agency’s ability to offer the same level and quality of service to its clients without having that physical interface.
Surprisingly though, what we have found is if you put the right level of investment in the tech side of the platform, it frees up the agents to actually get out and about to meet with clients – they are no longer tied to their desks up to their eyeballs in tenancy agreements because all of the paperwork is done at the click of a button – ok maybe two.
It’s not an easy pill to swallow if you’re an estate agent, but if we want to evolve, grow and advance our sector we must embrace change and look ahead to exciting new opportunities to offer our clients the very best service we possibly can.
Giles Barrett is Sales Director at Rentify.