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Property Natter: agents bucking the high street downturn

Maplin, Toys R Us, Carpetright, Warren Evans – what do they have in common? All are well-known high street chains that are either in big trouble, on the verge of going bust or already out of business altogether. 

A few weeks ago Bargain Booze and Wine Rack were brought back from the brink thanks to a £7 million buyout from grocery wholesaler Bestway, which acquired the chains from Conviviality after that firm announced a string of profit warnings and intentions to bring in the administrators.

House of Fraser, Debenhams and New Look are struggling, too, with talk of large-scale store closures and restructuring, while even food and clothing giant M&S is scaling back its high street presence.

HMV’s future was very uncertain a few years ago, before a vinyl revolution and a revival engineered by retail turnaround firm Hilco rescued the company from the abyss. Even now, though, it is far from the dominant force it once was. 

In recent years we’ve seen the total collapse of BHS, once a retail titan, and further back the loss of key high street chains like Woolworths, Zavvi and MFI. 

It’s not just high street retailers, either; well-known chain restaurants are also in a bit of bother. Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo and burger chain Byron have all announced closures, while Oliver’s upmarket barbecue chain Barbecoa recently went into administration. 

What’s this got to do with estate agency? I hear you cry. Well, while major high street retailers struggle amid doom-laden talk of the death of the British high street, estate agents go from strength to strength. Visit any high street in any city, town or even village in Britain and estate agents are prominent – often dominant.

Ours was one of the few industries that thrived after the global financial crisis and, despite Brexit uncertainty, economic concerns and political instability, there is no indication that agency is in danger of going the same way as certain big-name clothes stores, electronics giants, toy specialists or restaurant chains. 

In fact, quite the opposite. Of course, there are always pressures and closures in any industry, but at the moment expansions, acquisitions and new agencies entering the market seem to be outnumbering those closing their doors.

The reasons for this seem fairly simple; while the growth of the internet heralded the death of the high street travel agent and stripped back the demand for high street banks and shops, selling, buying, letting or renting a home is still a very personal process and many still like the reassurance of speaking to a human face-to-face.

Yes, online and hybrid agents are growing in number and influence, and traditional agents are placing more importance on their online offerings, but for the most part actual, physical branches are where it’s at, where the work and transactions get done.

According to recent government research, there are now around 20,000 agents operating throughout the country, and you only need your eyes as evidence that many of these are doing a roaring trade despite increased competition and the same pressures faced by everyone else on the high street: how to remain relevant and necessary in an increasingly digital world.

There is no doubt that, in many aspects of life, there is a slow but sure transition from physical to digital, but certain industries are bucking that trend. Estate agency is one of them, while it doesn’t seem as if hairdressers (it’s hard to get a haircut or a trim online, after all!), newsagents, cafes, independent restaurants, phone shops or supermarkets will be going anywhere for a while yet.

Traditional shops such as butchers and bakeries also continue to thrive despite the issues faced by others, offering a more personal service, a higher quality of goods and a more authentic customer experience. Also, with sustainability and provenance increasingly important issues, consumers like to know where their goods come from and how they’ve been made, to the benefit of those offering a more home-made approach.

Even then, though, it’s the trendy, quirky, niche ones – the ones offering something different – that are thriving the most, which once again highlights that those who are willing to adapt and evolve with the times are the most likely to buck the high street downturn.   

One of the arguments for the reasons behind the troubles faced by high street giants and restaurant chains is oversaturation; in other words, too many shops and not enough demand.

But, again, this doesn’t seem to be an issue in the world of agency. There is, more often than not, too much demand. And it is demand that is concrete, immovable, timeless and ever-lasting. People will always want and need to buy, sell, let and rent homes. 

While that’s the case, and while enough people still require the human touch, estate agency will continue to thrive.

The importance of content, design and social media

Three key (but often overlooked) aspects of any estate agent's business in this day and age are content, design and social media. Good content keeps people informed and up to speed with the latest news, tips and legislation, and comes with the added bonus of drawing traffic to your website.

Good design, meanwhile, is crucial to ensuring your agency stands out from the crowd. Whether it's logos, brochures, leaflets, boards or the design of your website, clean, bright, well thought-out designs can lure people in, make sure your business looks very professional and ingrain your brand’s name in people's consciousness. It's also important from a brand awareness and identity point of view.

Finally, social media – now so much more than just a fad – can drive traffic to your website, allow you to communicate instantaneously with clients and enable you to position yourself as a local expert on given topics.

At Angels Media we offer all these services to our agents. Watch out for a future Natter where I'll go into much more detail about why these things are so important. 

The best awards night in town

Yes, we really are back to that time of the year again. How time flies! The biggest and best property awards event in town took place last night at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, with Mr Property himself Phil Spencer once again handing out the gongs. Now in its 15th year, it brought the great and good of the industry together for an evening of fun, good food and recognition of the hard work that everyone in the property world puts in each year.

As ever, a thoroughly well-organised and enjoyable event.

That's that from me...until next time.

*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.

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