The property market has bounced back with all of the expected resilience and flexibility that is its hallmark since it reopened in mid-May.
Agents have coped well with a whole new way of doings things, and we’ve all kind of got used to the new normal of mask wearing, social distancing, the Rule of Six and regular handwashing. Despite this, a story we covered on EAT last week will have caused some concern.
According to a report by business consultancy TwentyCi, some 713 estate agency branches have failed to reopen following the spring lockdown. TwentyCi says that is the equivalent of a 3.5% fall in the total number of high street branches. While the firm’s research offered no finer detail on the closures, meaning it cannot be clear as to whether they are agencies closing completely or simply not operating - even in a restricted way - from branches, it will have led to alarm bells ringing for some.
It’s not hugely surprising, on one level, with the economic devastation caused by Covid and the considerable decline in high street footfall, but agencies across the country will hope this isn’t the start of a wider trend as the furlough scheme winds down and the less generous Jobs Support Scheme replaces it.
As we face the prospect of another nationwide lockdown – or firebreak/circuit-breaker – those entering the danger zone of potentially going under is likely to rise.
Fortunately, we are all now much better set-up to navigate tighter restrictions, with agencies putting in place protocols, strategies and contingency plans to ensure they can operate safely.
There was also some good news within the various new local lockdown measures that even people in Tier 3 locations can still move house, view, rent and buy homes. This makes the prospect of another freeze on the property market - as we saw earlier this year – much less likely unless a full-blown UK-wide lockdown is introduced.
But to survive, and more importantly thrive, diversification may be the order of the day. This doesn’t mean stretching yourself too thin, entering markets you have no expertise in (we all know that never goes well!) or expanding too far and too fast, but it does mean being more adaptable, more malleable and more able to act quickly if the central part of your business starts to suffer.
I can offer some personal experience here, both from this crisis and the last, the global financial crisis of 2008 which sent the worldwide economy tumbling into the worst recession in decades. It was the most damaging event of the 21st century until Covid came along to kick it out of the park.
Back then, as many of you will know, I was in the mortgage sphere – a great place to be in the lead-up to the crash, the very worst place to be when it all went Pete Tong. Pretty much overnight, my mortgage business had no function. I was screwed. I had to move fast to think of an alternative.
What was needed at that point, more than ever? High-quality, unbiased news, tips and guidance to introducers, agents, landlords and property investors as the property market started its slow recovery. Even that was a gamble, as back then online news was not the all-conquering behemoth it is today. But it has paid off handsomely.
When I formed Angels Media, though, I didn’t just focus on the Today sites – although they were, and remain, the bedrock of the business – I also decided to explore marketing, PR, sales, PropTech and the increasingly important role of social media. I got great teams in to build these departments. We grew organically and sustainably. We had our fingers in many different pies, but always with the same central goal – to help agents and property people to improve their businesses, as well as providing them with daily news updates.
Then came ValPal, designed to directly improve the number and quality of leads generated by agents, to improve the property journey as a whole.
By diversifying, and not relying heavily on one single thing – as had been the case in the days of Mortgage Angels – we were much better placed to come out of the other side of this latest crisis. We are now a marketing, PropTech, sales and new media company, with a bit of PR added into the mix.
Like every other business, the pandemic brought us financial challenges, but we were able to recover much more quickly by having a range of areas to focus on.
In the last crisis, my business was virtually wiped out by a severe shock to the banking system. But this time we were much better prepared because we diversified. And agents can achieve the same by being flexible, adaptable and having a wide range of revenue streams to help them come out the other side.
We’ve already seen many agents embrace PropTech, recognising its value in a world that is becoming more digital, online, paperless and cashless than ever. This includes products such as MovePal, which generates and nurtures leads to ensure you aren't left wasting time on leads that aren't hot. It's also there, in the background, even as you sleep, targeting vendors and landlords at exactly the right time to help your business to grow.
Many letting agents have been considering the virtues of offering short-term let, property management and Build to Rent services to boost revenues; estate agents may want to consider innovative ways to ensure their business isn’t solely reliant on the high levels of demand and activity we are currently seeing.
‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ and ‘variety is the spice of life’ might be well-worn cliches, but they also ring true.
To give themselves the best chance of thriving during this crisis, agents need to be both open to change, and embrace it. Opportunties are very much still there for growth.
The world of agency is going to look radically different after the pandemic, and it’ll be the forward-thinking agencies – who use PropTech to streamline their services and cut their overheads, who consider innovative hub models, and who have a diverse range of revenue streams – who leave everyone else behind.
The power of mobile
How people consume their news and browse the internet has been a hot topic of conversation for many years, and can help businesses to adapt accordingly. If, for example, you are aware that most people visit your site from a smartphone, you may want to consider making your sites and user-journey more smartphone-friendly? Does everything fit on the screen nicely? Are squeezed images an issue? Is the scroll function adequate enough?
Our Google Analytics stats for traffic on EAT show that, over the last 90 days, 58.6% of people have reached us by their mobile device, while 37.8% have used a desktop. A much less significant 3.5% have used a tablet.
It’s what most of us knew already, that people tend to consume their news and do their browsing through their smartphone – which are like mini-computers in their own rights these days thanks to the Android/iPhone boom – but it also highlights the importance of a mobile-first approach for agents.
Our stats are likely to be replicated across the board. It’s more likely than not that potential customers will be visiting your site from their mobile device, and if they’re not happy with the experience they receive when they get there, they’ll be off. Just like they’d walk straight back out of a shop if no-one came to greet them, or avoid a restaurant if it looked dodgy and unappealing from the outside.
Your website needs to be set up for mobile – interactive, engaging, streamlined. If you’re not sure, here at The ValPal Network we can offer a free review of your site and where you can improve things to make it more mobile-responsive. It’s that diversification thing again!
Give me, Craig Vile or one of The ValPal Network team a shout and we’ll do the rest.
Until next time….
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.