Commentators have been trumpeting the death of the High Street for decades, with out-of-town retail parks, online shopping and a pandemic all threatening to bring down one of Britain’s much-loved institutions.
While it’s true some High Streets will never be the same, it doesn’t mean they won’t survive or even thrive. Evidence is mounting that shopping thoroughfares are becoming leisure and social destinations more than retail ones – you only have to look at the number of coffee shops to appreciate our love of lingering over a latte.
Into the night
Discussions about estate agency branches should be held in line with wider conversations about the future role of shopping districts. Even the Government’s own long-term strategy to revitalise High Streets recognises retail isn’t the only option – it is openly encouraging councils to transform empty shops into entertainment venues, without planning permission.
An interesting article recently published in The Week discussed what to do in the City of London, where the term ‘ghost town’ is being liberally applied. The feature is full of salient points that highlight how working away from the office will affect daytime footfall and why the future of the City may lie in the night-time economy.
So, where does that leave agents? The role of physical branches is being called into question. Offices on the High Street have always been a bastion of success and a pivotal piece of corporate branding, but the advent of online property portals and the digitalisation of transactions means movers now have fewer reasons to visit.
It’s a complicated and complex issue, however, wrapped up with inevitable requests from agents to work from home on a permanent or flexi basis, the expectancy of walk-in business and the need to purvey a successful image to the home moving masses.
Trust and timings
The issue of trust is something that Jon Edwards at Excite Interiors says is intertwined with a High Street branch – fortifying the idea that the office is going nowhere. “The public demands something beyond the internet. They are more interested in who can service them. They trust those on the High Street – they don’t necessarily trust those who are not,” he says.
Jon also raises the issue of what sellers and landlords want too: “They want their property to be exposed – they know people walk past estate agencies and look in the windows.” Now, and in the future, it is the timing of when those people are looking that matters most.
Turning the 9-5 into the 5-9
An office has always served as a daytime base – a place for staff to work and clients to pop in while they’re out shopping but if the High Street is going to flourish after 5pm, is a full house first thing in the morning a wise use of resources?
One estate agency client rents just window space from a newsagent in a location with a high level of evening traffic.
“If High Streets are moving away from retail and more towards social, the hours during which a branch is staffed does come into question,” says Harry Simons at MPL Interiors. While the thinking isn’t to open into the wee small hours when well lubricated revellers are staggering home, there may be a benefit to adjusting opening hours so they dovetail with when restaurant goers and bar hoppers are most active.
“The way agents staff branches is being turned on its head and with more employees seeking flexi hours and remote working arrangements, it’s not implausible for an office to be manned between 5pm and 9pm – especially Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays,” adds Harry. “There will always be a need for a staffed office during the day but this could be team ‘lite’, with a heavier presence during peak evening periods.”
Open all hours
Staying open into the evening to catch night time trade hinges on the ability to lure people in as they’re on their way to dinner or drinks. “The design and fit out of a branch plays an important role in increasing footfall and if agents are keen to exploit evening trade, the aesthetic moving forwards needs to almost be anti-office,” says Harry.
“Many of the customer-facing areas we design and install now feel like club lounges, with sofas, complimentary refreshments, TV screens and designer lighting. On show thanks to expanses of glass, they exude a welcoming, inviting vibe rather than a sterile office look. You need to give people a reason to come in – if they think there’s a comfy seat and a free drink, you’re halfway there.”
Making a concession
While branches may never double up as a full bar with a dancefloor, there is nothing stopping agents from operating as a dual-purpose site. The lead can be taken from retailer Primark, whose busiest stores feature in-house coffee shops. “If property alone isn’t a big enough draw to get people in through the door after 5pm, then why not share the space with something that will?,” says Harry.
It’s an idea that can be twinned with one of 2021’s strongest office trends – downsizing – especially as more companies find themselves with an excess of space. Sharing square footage with another business – especially one from the night time economy – can be a smart move.
“Agents can become more of a hub and sub-let desks to associated businesses, such as interior designers, as well as the traditional IFAs pairing,” says Steve Leah at Vis-com. “It’s a brilliant way for a small agency to multi-facet, generate extra income, increase leads and boost footfall.” Some of Vis-com’s larger clients already partner with affiliates who have certain slots in an office, and being able to offer mortgage appointments and moving home advice of an evening can become a marketing perk. And why stop at property related partners when a barber or a florist may make a great concession?
Agents can become more of a hub and sub-let desks to associated businesses, such as interior designers, as well as the traditional IFAs pairing. Steve Leah, Vis-com.
If subletting appeals, floorplans are best reworked by the experts. “A professional design service can help clients make the maximum use of the space available. Using multi-user desks for property and lettings is one way of freeing space so it can be shared, and we can use elegant screening to provide a level of separation without the loss of private offices.”
Concessions can work both ways too. One of Steve Blackaller’s estate agency clients rents just window space from a newsagent in a location with a high level of evening traffic. In the window is one of Steve’s InTouch screens, which is always plugged in and turned on – promoting the agent’s property portfolio and collecting data from people whose heads are turned when they nip in for late-night lottery ticket or chocolate fix. Estate agents could also open satellite offices within retail stores that have late night opening hours. It’s been done before in supermarkets so there are avenues to explore on the High Street too.
We have estate agents who run their agency from home and install touch screens in prominent positions to provide exposure without the costs of a physical branch. Steve Blackaller, InTouch Display.
An engaging display
While feasible in bustling urban cities, staffed late-night opening may not work for some but that doesn’t mean all estate agents can’t be part of the night time economy.
“Perhaps, in the not too distant future, branches will move away from offering face-to- face interactivity but the window space itself is very important as a way of advertising products and services, 24/7,” comments Mark Evans at Halo Digital Signage.
Mark firmly believes branch windows will remain a critical marketing asset – even if daytime desk space isn’t as important – with displays offering the strongest crossover from the day to the evening and night-time economy. “Halo software and screen solutions attract passing customers and allow them to browse products on offer, even when the branch is closed.”
Perhaps, in the not too distant future, branches will move away from offering face-to-face interactivity but the window space itself is very important. Mark Evans, Halo Digital Signage.
Its digital signage and software player provides unique mobile-to-screen technology that allows those on the public side of the glass to select properties from an agent’s display, control video playbacks and complete forms using their mobile phone. “With Halo, people simply use their device like a remote control. It’s a form of data capture and engagement that’s live day and night,” adds Mark.
Bright lights and late nights are something that go hand-in-hand, and window displays that literally glow in the dark play a key part in attracting attention after traditional office hours. “A great benefit of LED illumination is that it increases the exposure of the agents’ property portfolio around the clock, bringing the office to life after 5pm and during the darker seasons,” says Tom Cummuskey at Kremer Signs.
A great benefit of LED illumination is that it increases the exposure of the agents’ property portfolio around the clock, bringing the office to life after 5pm. Tom Cummuskey, Kremer Signs.
“LED illuminated window displays, paired with an LED illuminated fascia, can make all the difference in increasing brand awareness when there’s competition along the High Street – it’s important to not let business walk past your door. Window displays are often one of the first aspects of an estate agency refurbishment that a client wants to discuss. In fact, we have seen a huge rise in the order of window displays, including free standing and cable display systems – both of which can be supplied with LED illumination.”
Steve Blackaller is another professional who has long recognised the importance of digital signage after traditional trading hours. InTouch’s through-glass touch screens enable agents to keep generating business even after they’ve locked up for the day. The eye catching screens work hard for an agent after hours – providing a marketing planform, a search facility and a lead capture point without having the branch doors open.
Steve also highlights how its touch screens can be utilised in locations away from the agent’s branch too – perhaps where queues build in the evening or where High Street footfall is at its highest. “We have estate agents who run their agency from home and install touch screens in prominent positions to provide exposure without the associated costs of a physical branch.”
Although tapping into the evening and night-time economy will feel strange to agents – and there will be resistance – everything is changing, including retail conventions and consumer behaviour. The High Street is morphing into a hub for eating, drinking and being social, so is now the time to ditch traditional working hours for something altogether more nocturnal?