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Are High Street branches becoming less relevant?

PwC decribes the ‘new reality’ – a consumer landscape where people prefer to shop online, and, increasingly, eat, drink and entertain at home. So, asks Lisa Isaacs, where do estate agents feature in the future of the High Street?

Lisa Isaacs

Estate agency interior image

To understand why High Street agents are relevant now and will continue to be, lies with what a consumer is buying. We’re not talking towel bales from BHS or a USB cable from Maplin (RIP) but life’s most expensive purchase and a legally binding process. The seriousness of the transaction – and the fact that the buyer can also be a seller – means a faceless online operation or call centre miles away doesn’t always give the assurances movers are looking for.

It’s getting personal rather than entirely digital. Mike Deplete – author of the 2018 Emerging Models in Real Estate Report® (a joint study by PwC and the Urban Land Institute) is unequivocal is his stance on tangible estate agents. “Real estate agents aren’t going anywhere. Home sellers still want someone to hold their hand and consumers want to work with an agent to reduce the chances of a potentially costly mistake – agents are insurance.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Matthew Knight – strategy and innovation partner at foxlark (a business consultancy). “Service businesses, such as estate agents and banks, will always have a presence on the High Street but they’ll focus on customer service rather than the transaction. Having a face-to-face conversation trumps any chatbot!”

BUILD ON THE UPPER HAND

Harry Simons - MPL Interiors - imageMPL Interiors works with numerous estate agents refreshing existing branches and/or opening new offices. “Having a walk-in office will soon be a real USP and many agents realise what an asset being on the High Street is,” says Harry Simons – Partner at the shopfitting specialist. “While the internet is great at finding buyers and tenants, winning new instructions is about local standing, accountable staff who personally oversee transactions and a base from which to gather area-specific market intelligence.”

The internet’s great to find buyers but a walk-in office will soon be a real USP, many agents realise that being on the High Street is a valuable asset. Harry Simons, MPL Interiors.

Harry says the future of agency shopfitting lies in customising interior designs to reach a specific audience. “Online is often a ‘one size fits all’ approach with little variation but we’re tailoring branches and engaging with people in a way that’s not achievable online. Reflecting the local vernacular or purveying a desirable image makes people feel their agent is in tune with them – a positive influencing factor.”

TRUST ISSUES

Do homemovers trust agents with a physical branch more than an online-only one? Quite possibly. A tangible presence – real people in an office you can visit – cannot be underestimated, as to Phil Hoey, Editor of Quotezone.co.uk, points out, “Buying or selling a property is a major decision – buyers and sellers often require a greater level of trust before they’ll sign on that dotted line. That may change but for now, many people still gain that trust from a face-to-face relationship with their estate agent, even if they’re true digital natives when it comes to other types of transactions.”

VISIBLE BRAND REINFORCEMENT

You can’t swipe past, delete or hide a physical office – it’s the beauty of the branch. An office represents 24-hour advertising that is as subliminal as it is overt. An agent that’s visible on the High Street suggests good trading health, an investment in the community and a level of transparency that will become increasingly important when movers make decisions. For many, there’s still a lingering doubt that online businesses can simply disappear overnight, (and, oops, several have recently done just that) so an agent’s branch can be its biggest business endorsement.

External shopfitting display image

External displays can be fitted anywhere!

“Effective signage is your brand identity, your trustworthiness and your calling card all rolled into a visual voice, and it needs to be consistent, clear and concise throughout,” comments Tom Cummuskey, Sales and Marketing Manager at Kremer Signs. “Good signage draws in the right customers and keeps them interested. A study commissioned by FedX, found that 76 per cent of people entered a shop based on the signage, and 68 per cent said that they had bought products after seeing a sign relating to that item or service.”

Good signage is about eye-catching visibility and through the winter period agents should take advantage of the shorter days, says Tom. “By illuminating the office as much as possible, agents can raise brand awareness and gain a competitive edge, with an almost infinite number of LED lighting, colour, fascia and lettering combinations possible, agents can create brand continuity.”

Lovett Touch screen technology image

Bright ideas: Lovett invested in InTouch screen technology.

WINDOW SHOPPING

While a website’s homepage is often described as its online shop window, an expanse of glass on a High Street wins hands down in aesthetic visibility, the ability to target specific audiences and the opportunity to design the offering on a branch-by-branch basis.

Not every agent has to be radical, but they need to make the most of the displays to meet the challenges of estate agency in the internet age. Michelle Farnsworth, Mid West Displays.

Michelle Farnsworth - Mid West Displays - imageMichelle Farnsworth, the Sales Manager at Mid West Displays, says the effective use of window displays has a huge impact on movers, even when people do most of their research online: “They play a really crucial role in differentiating between the good and not-so-good agents for buyers and sellers.”

Keep window displays fresh, says Michelle, “Not every agent has to be radical, but they have to think about how to make the most of their available display and interior space to meet the challenges of estate agency in the internet age.”

As an example, Mid West Displays developed a faux print range of LED light pockets. The designs were based on the latest in retail design trends and Michelle says it’s this application of design to branch displays that creates the greatest amount of head turning.

“To survive, High Street retailers have to develop experiential environments to retain customers. Agents are learning these lessons and are challenging the usual ideas about how their branches should look. Technology can play a part but it needs to serve, not lead.”

To keep ahead of the consumer curve, Mid West Displays is working with interior design students at Wolverhampton University: “The students are using our experience in property display, their own research into consumer behaviour and technological innovation, and a huge dose of inspiration to help us deliver the next generation of estate agency branches.”

Fine & Country window display image

Fine & Country by MPL Interiors.

MORE TECH!

As well as bespoke aesthetics, refurbishment specialists are layering traditional shop fitting methods with new technology. MPL Interiors is gearing up to install virtual reality areas in branches, which will elevate the High Street experience to an immersive level, and it’s strengthening its relationships with technology suppliers, including Samsung and InTouch Display.

The latter is keen to stress that a digitally-ready High Street is more than any match for the online arena. InTouch’s Steve Blackaller says their touch screens add a 24-hour element to physical branches, with agents won over by the data capture and metrics facilities, “The round-the-clock nature of the internet is no longer a USP as our touch screen can be used 24/7. They’re like an extra member of the team working long after traditional office hours.”

Steve is noticing how agents are using his screens to morph in to community hubs and not merely estate agents: “Increasingly agents are broadcasting details of local events, which increases positive brand association in the community.”

CONSOLIDATION NOT COMPROMISE

We can’t ignore the elephant in the room – the reality that some agents won’t be able to afford rents on prime High Streets. Rather than disappear from the community, Steve says it will be possible to relocate to cheaper premises elsewhere – without the large glass façade and the rent premium that attracts – and still promote properties, marketing messages and local events.

Some agencies will consolidate and relocate to a central hub to retain a key position close to high landmark sites with office hubs to reduce overheads. Richard Allen, Senior Interiors.

Richard Allen - Senior Interiors - imageThere’s also a trend for ‘super branches’ – one-stop shops in prominent positions that allow agencies to close smaller offices and trade from a flagship premise, as noted by Richard Allen, the Senior Interiors Consultant at Five Interiors, “It’s highly likely some agencies will consolidate and relocate to a central hub in order to retain a key position close to high profile landmark sites. The focus will shift to a few strategically sites that work in conjunction with office hubs to reduce overheads.”

OMNICHANNEL OPERATIONS

While it’s naive to assume every agent will survive on the High Street, agents might consider who may be moving in, or risk shooting themselves in the foot. According to Hoey, online-only brands are sizing up a move to a High Street near you, “Many retail companies that we currently think of as online-only – Amazon and Made.com – will begin to use their wealth of transaction data and their strong brand-recognition to encroach on the High Street,” says Hoey.

“Staying on the High Street is an important future marketing strategy,” observes MPL’s Harry. “Online agents can transfer to the High Street and this is a major threat. Traditional agents contemplating shutting shop may find their place is quickly taken by a digital rival in a complete reversal of fortunes, and the general public would certainly question whether a longstanding agent was still trading if it disappeared from the High Street – even if it had simply moved online.”

CALLING TIME ON THE 9-5?

The traditional retail focus of our High Streets will shift more towards social and leisure, so how can estate agents evolve to fit the new dynamic? One radical thought is to sync more with the opening hours of bars, pubs and restaurants. Perhaps the Monday to Saturday 9-6pm set up will be replaced with a Tuesday to Sunday 12 noon to 9pm rota, catching higher volumes of drinkers, diners and commuters.

Tandem retailing – shared High Street space for increased footfall and lower overheads… sharing with a coffee shop… concession-style trading, taking space in a larger shop or department store.

The knee jerk reaction may be to lock up for one last time, but physical branches can maintain their home on the High Street by leveraging their key USPs – real people who have a vested interest in helping their local community and whose comforting presence can be called upon by buyers, sellers, tenants and landlords. Agents could take a more lifestyle – rather than purely functional – approach to their premises to create a haven for homemovers that simply External displays can be fitted anywhere! can’t be replicated elsewhere.

January 28, 2019

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