A young 30-something couple pause on their way home from the restaurant to gaze at a slick shop window that looks for all the world like a giant mobile phone. Digital messages are popping out of the screen. Pictures of beautiful homes rotate elegantly within an electronic carousel. Their dream home flickers into life in front of them…
The children are growing fast and they’ve been thinking of moving for months. “That’s it!” the woman exclaims to her partner. “Quick, grab that QR code.”
If it sounds like a fantasy, you’re wrong. Digital displays are being installed at estate agents’ offices across the country – and you can’t afford to be left behind in the race. “It’s creating almost e-commerce from shop windows – we’re trying to digitise the high streets, taking how people behave online and then mirroring that on high streets, turning windows into screens,” explains Mark Evans, founder and Chief Technical Officer of digital signage company Nomadix.
Putting screens in the window and having a more digitised front to the business, is connecting with more people – and that seems to be more in sync with retail as a whole.
“Estate agents are looking to be different from just putting some window cards up and hoping that’s enough to attract people and stand out from the growing competition.
“Putting screens in the window and having a more digitised front to the business is connecting with more people– and that seems to be more in sync with retail as a whole.”
Evans says agents have to become more digitally focused to connect with increasingly tech-savvy audiences. “The buyers of tomorrow are the young of yesterday,” he continues. “These people are plugged into a tech world so if they screen in a window there is more chance of interacting with it using their mobile, not touch. So they can digest info and take it home and share it.
“The business in the high street is there, it just has to be maximised in a digital way. The only way to get passing traffic is with screens. You are making sure you are turning your windows into a really powerful advertising tool and marketing inventory, so we are seeing a demand from agents in towns to be more competitive and more digital in that approach.”
Nomadix has developed unique facial feature detection software that can tell who is looking at the shop window. It does not identify individuals, but rather picks up on facial characteristics that can pinpoint gender and age range. The software has a number of advantages – allowing, for instance, the interactive displays to remain static late at night, or if a gang of teenagers are gathered around the window.
But it goes much further, allowing the display to target particular properties at different audiences. “You are activating the pathway to get people interactive with your screen,” says Evans. “They can swipe left and right to look at properties on their phone, but you are controlling that interaction.
“The screen can also produce content depending on whose looking at it. So if you are a young couple with a family the camera will recognise that and use artificial intelligence to go through properties that are most suited – so rather than a two-bed penthouse it will bring up three- or four-bed houses and categorise the hot properties that are most suited to that audience looking at the window.”
As to the debate about whether people still bother to look in agents’ windows, with a plethora of portals available on their phones, Evans is convinced the high street office is still relevant. “Some people will be quite happy to deal with an agent without a base, but I think when it comes to the experiential part of the sale, it’s the same argument that everyone thinks the high street will die because of the Amazons of this world, but people still like to try on a pair of shoes.”
One interesting trend he has noticed is a high street renaissance in smaller towns following the Covid pandemic. “There has been a paradigm shift in how high streets are being perceived,” notes Evans. “We’re not talking about high streets in city centres because we know from footfall figures that they are down. What it has done has shifted a lot of footfall back to local towns and villages with people working from home, or who have moved from cities to outlying towns, and it has helped to regenerate traffic on those areas.”
Steve Blackaller, Sales Manager at pioneer digital signage experts InTouch Display, agrees that high street offices still have a vital role to play. “I still think there is a huge demographic of people that still like to go in and sit down with the agent,” he says. “The last six to eight months has been really encouraging. For the agents who are still on the high street, the buy-in is still to promote all their services and their brand. They are moving away from static displays as they are quite labour-intensive [to update] – with the screens everything happens digitally.”
The buy-in [for agents] is still to promote all their services and their brand. They are moving away from static displays – with the screens everything happens digitally. Steve Blackaller, InTouch Display.
With the demise of many local newspapers, InTouch is pioneering a local news service that allows agents to use their windows to promote local community events, as a way of drawing people in. “People who are walking by high street properties generally do the same journeys week in, week out, and if you are promoting events for the local rugby club or cricket club it really does draw people’s attention to your office,” he explains. “It’s a very good way of cementing your brand subliminally while they are not looking for property.”
All the agent has to do is supply the information, and InTouch builds it into an advert that will pop up in the digital feed to the display along with property for sale drawn from the CMS database – in much the same way as a local newspaper used to feature an estate agent’s property ads.
The embedded software will not allow the user to navigate away from what the agent wants them to see. If people see a property that is interesting, they can go to the relevant advert and look at it in more detail, while dedicated Community buttons will take the user to local news content.
Every featured property is given a QR code that people can snap on their phone, and will take them straight to the website listing so that they can view it later.
As well as standard digital displays, InTouch also offers ground-breaking touchscreen displays that work through the shop window, just like a mobile phone.
Jon Edwards, Managing Director of shopfitting company Excite Interiors, believes high street estate agents’ offices are “still totally relevant”. “We deal with a lot of agents and they all see the office as their greatest marketing tool, a presence on the high street is very important for gaining instructions,” he says. “People notice an estate agent and make their decision as to who they are going to instruct to sell their property by feeling whether it suits them, whether the image is good. So I think it’s very important for agents to have a high street presence.
We deal with a lot of agents and they all see the office as their greatest marketing tool, a presence on the high street is very important for gaining instructions. Jon Edwards Managing Director, Excite Interiors.
“There have been several agents who have gone into hubs but who have subsequently come out of them, and several who have said they will never have high street offices but who have now decided that they will, and I think that will continue to be the case.”
Edwards points out that it is probably now no more expensive to rent space in the high street than in an office block or a serviced office, while an industrial estate offers zero visibility. “You’ve got to be on the high street for people to know about you,” he emphasises. “It’s a space you can get six or seven staff into, and people will do window shopping in the evening if they’ve been to the pub or the restaurant or the cinema – they will walk past the estate agent and stop if they see something in the window.”
When it comes to refurbishing offices, he says current style trends range from “the ultra modern on the one hand to an atmosphere that is more like a domestic lounge, and everything in between”.
Staff areas key to retention
When talking to agents about their requirements, he will always flag up the importance of staff areas, behind the scenes – the kitchen and the loos – which he says can be a major factor when it comes to hanging on to good negotiators.
“Staff don’t want to work in a place where you go through a door and behind there is a hell hole,” he observes. “Most of them are awful – you wouldn’t dream of having those facilities in your own home. “Staff retention is terribly important. If you’re working in an office which is tired and was last refurbished 10 or 15 years ago, why would you be inspired to work there and stay there? Whereas if you’re working for a business that says, ‘We’re going to spend some money on the office and involve the staff in what it could look like, how it could look tasteful and how it could work for them’– they will retain their staff because they will be proud of where they work.”
Excite can arrange finance through leasing, which works in exactly the same way as leasing a car. You make regular monthly payments and can then buy the product at the end of the term for a further one-off payment – usually one month’s rent, sometimes up to three. It’s something that Edwards advises is best negotiated at the start of the deal.
Busier than pre-Covid
Shopfitter Vis-Com is busier now than pre-Covid. “Before, people would wait seven to eight years to do a refurbishment – now it’s closer to five years,” says Project Manager, Vaso Jones. “Clients are also opening new offices – people want to go out more than ever, they don’t want to do everything remotely. They want to walk down the street, see the shops and be involved. When they go out in the evening, or for lunch, people will look in the windows and see what’s happening.” She says clients are saying that street presence is more important than ever. “There is a lot of demand, so they have to be more competitive and up their game.”
Clients are also opening new offices. People want to go out, they don’t want to do everything remotely. They want to walk down the street, see the shops and be involved. Vaso Jones Project Manager, Vis-Com.
New trends include more soft-seating areas – and more screens, with video walls inside offices becoming increasingly popular, though window cards still have a place for many agents. Jones also highlights improving the working environment for staff as a priority.
Harry Simons, a partner at MPL Interiors, has also seen buoyant post-pandemic demand from estate agents keen to raise their profile and capture some of the new business.
“If you thought the pandemic spelt the end of offices, you’d be wrong,” he states. “The value of a physical branch should never be underestimated because a visible, tangible brand sends the right signal to home movers.
I’d go as far as saying that fitting out customer-facing areas has overtaken work zones, private offices and communal facilities in terms of aesthetic importance. Harry Simons Partner, MPL Interiors.
“We’ve had clients commissioning branch refurbishments and new offices throughout 2022 – projects that were put on ice during the pandemic are coming to fruition, while agents are using some excellent trading months to reinvest in their business as part of new plans.”
He says that as foot traffic returns to the high street and confidence to meet people in person is restored, agents are improving their front-of-house and reception areas.
“I’d go as far as saying that fitting out customer-facing areas has overtaken work zones, private offices and communal facilities in terms of aesthetic importance,” he adds.
“Designs are getting bolder, details more intricate and finishes more lavish as agents look to spoil their customers. In addition, interior design is increasingly becoming a way of embodying a brand and attracting a certain demographic of home mover. It really can come down to the style of sofa, the choice of coffee table or the print on wallpaper.”
When it comes to themes, Simons says a residential atmosphere is becoming more popular for the office.
“We are using framed artwork, house plants, statement pendant light fittings and plush fabrics that wouldn’t look out of place in a show home when specifying designs. It’s a way for agents to soften their image, tune into the ‘lifestyle’ aspect of moving home and align themselves with an audience,” he explains.
If you – or your staff – think your offices are looking a little tired, there are currently generous tax breaks for office refurbishments. If you’re spending cash, then you will get a 130 per cent tax allowance until March 2023, while if you’re leasing you can already claim 100 per cent back against tax. There is no time like the present – your branch window is your best asset, so use it and pull in the business.