Of course, many agents have opened their branches throughout the current lockdown to allow staff to work and to host occasional visits made by consumers on an appointment-only basis.
That said, with 'stay at home' restrictions lifted on March 29 and non-essential retail outlets reopening from today, agents should expect increased footfall when they open their doors in a more traditional sense over the coming weeks.
The pandemic has certainly had an effect on agency branches, with many firms reducing their networks and diverting staff to hubs across a wider geographic area. Data from BestAgent suggests that some 900 estate agency branches - equivalent to around 4% - closed between July 2020 and January 2021.
On the other hand, it's not all been doom and gloom when it comes to agents' offices. This year alone, Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today have reported on over 10 new office openings across the country - with many more likely to have taken place under the radar.
So, with the great British public making a return to the nation's high streets from today, here is an overview on the future of agency branches and how you can make the most of your public-facing commercial space.
Is showcasing available properties in branch windows still important?
Despite the well-documented troubles experienced by the high street, having a strong window display is still useful for agents when it comes to capturing the attention of passing consumers.
Even over the last year, it's not been uncommon to see people stop at an agent's window and browse the available properties. We all know that the vast majority of serious property searching takes place online these days, but seeing a property in an agent’s window can ignite the excitement in a prospective buyer or seller, encouraging them to visit the agent’s website on their phone or when they get home.
With some consumers potentially reluctant to enter a branch without an appointment from now on, an engaging window with plenty of branding and prompts for consumers to take action could take on greater importance than ever before for high street agents.
Over the last few years, some firms have made it easy for consumers to provide their contact details without having to enter the branch itself. Considering the current climate, we could see an increased uptake of this window-first approach over the coming months.
Meanwhile, we're also seeing innovative agents using windows of other retailers to publicise their activities.
These agents subsequently become less reliant on their own major high street presence and the need to pay high rents, business rates and other associated costs is reduced. Think of it as high street exposure at a fraction of the cost.
Of course, this approach is best suited to small agents with low footfall or online operators who want to advertise their brand in a more prominent position.
With keeping costs down set to be a priority for many agents and a rise in the number of firms without a high street presence, I do believe demand for this type of advertising will increase significantly post-pandemic. Over the next 12 months, as everything and everyone starts to find out what the new world is going to be like, low-cost innovation which is effective in boosting brand profile and promoting properties will be key for many agents.
How can branches appeal to the modern consumer?
The pandemic has given all retailers the opportunity to rethink their space and how it works for the consumer.
For the foreseeable future, agents will need to continue to ensure branches are Covid-secure. A consequence of this is that desks need to be more spaced out and a more defined journey for people entering the branch is required.
Could this current obligation pave the way for agents to operate branches which are ‘softer’ and less formal in the long-term?
We have seen boutique agencies recreate living rooms in the past and there are a number of agencies doubling up as coffee shops.
The role of the modern agent is to be an all-round property adviser for those looking to buy and sell homes. Therefore, providing the opportunity for consumers to chat over their requirements in a spacious and comfortable area - with a flat white to boot - may become increasingly popular.
More than most, ours is very much a people business. When someone is involved in either buying or selling their home, it's a sure bet that it is absolutely the most important thing going on in their life at the time. Despite their level of importance, discussions do not need to be carried out in a formal setting. You’re going to be discussing people’s hopes, dreams and ambitions. As an agent, the more people relax in your company and the more you understand about your clients, the better job you will be able to do for them.
Local community is key – how can branches demonstrate this?
If an estate agency believes in the future of high street branches, it stands to reason that they are advocates of the community and committed to the role of local property expert.
It's therefore important to use branches to show what local really means. Whether it's maps of the local area, partnerships with nearby businesses or a nod to the history of the surrounding streets, showing how and why your brand is immersed in the fabric of the local area provides a positive talking point and builds trust with residents.
The pandemic has also reinforced the importance of community spirit. Agents do a huge amount of great work for local causes and there is no better place than the high street branch to shout about all the good that your firm has been doing.
Again, this provides an opportunity to build relationships with those who do visit the branch, acting also as another feature to draw the attention of those browsing outside with the aim of leaving a lasting impression.
The future of estate and letting agency branches was already changing before the pandemic and now the evolution of the high street has been expedited by a few years. Agents with a stake in physical branches can hopefully benefit from a gradual return to normal visitor numbers, continuing to adapt to what consumers want from their visiting experience.
*Phil Spencer is a presenter, author, businessman and property investor. Phil’s consumer advice platform Move iQ, is a website, YouTube channel and podcast. Each preserve and reflect the same impartiality that consumers trust and base their property moving plans. Coming soon: Move iQ Pro, Phil’s resource to support the property community. Stay tuned ready for launch!