Estate agents with a difference, a twist, a unique selling point, whatever you want to call it, seem to be becoming more and more common. Many are diversifying to appeal to clients, to improve the “customer” experience.
As was reported in EAT a few weeks ago, there are a number of innovative agencies approaching the traditional estate agency office in new and interesting ways. As the headline put it: “Estate agency of the future? “I’ll have a latte and a home””.
Thornton Robson, an estate/letting agent based in the heart of Warwickshire, is proving to be something of a trendsetter in this regard. The brainchild of Tracey Thornton, who has been an agent since the 1980s, Thornton Robson’s HQ certainly isn’t your typical estate agency office. It combines a traditional estate/letting agent with a soft furnishings store and a coffee shop. According to them, this innovative approach has created 75% more footfall in just three months, brought plenty of good PR and drawn admiring glances from rival agencies.
Thornton Robson’s ethos is that the personal touch is everything. Rather than losing the personal touch that might be lacking in bigger agencies, Thornton Robson believes it should be prized and preserved at all costs.
They say: “We still believe that, despite the marketing exposure of Rightmove and websites, people like the option of visiting local agents to discuss local markets, schools and facilities - with staff often locally-educated and who live and socialise in the same area too. They will always have the upper hand over a call centre situated miles away from a buyer’s potential new home.”
As a result of this, Thornton Robson has witnessed landlords popping in for a coffee and then a discussion about how best to market their rental property. They’ve also had customers dropping in to buy a cushion, engaged them in conversation and ended up with a home valuation and yet another instruction. More than anything, Tracey’s aim is to create a warm, friendly and relaxed environment, to encourage people inside and then work on convincing them to buy, sell, let or rent afterwards.
By making the agency a less intimidating place to visit – some people use the office as a café first and foremost, discussing property as an afterthought – they have seen footfall increase and the personal touch restored. From a PR, marketing and customer relations perspective, I think it’s a stroke of genius. And it’s clearly getting the right results.
UrPad, an agency in Bristol which provides both traditional and online sales and lettings services, does something similar. One of its offices is a café – Route 2 in Topsham. Owner Ian Clark, who has also been an estate agent since the 1980s, says a café/estate agency is a great way of generating interest from customers who might simply be popping in for a coffee or a spot of lunch. From that, a conversation about property can be started. Clark has plans to extend this idea even further, with the possibility of a franchise setting up in a barbers’ shop. “I’ll have a short back and sides and a home, please!”
And then there’s Haus Properties, set up by former Apprentice candidate, Jamie Lester, in 2011. His primary goal was to turn the country’s “most hated profession” on its head.
He did this by offering something different, by making the whole experience more informal and by taking a unique approach to the buying, selling and renting process (including a free removals service, open-book technology, a young, casual workforce and a video view of all properties prior to viewing).
Haus’ offices aim to create a homely, living room vibe, so customers feel like they are able to come in, have a chat about property and enjoy a “Haus coffee” around the kitchen table.
Talking of turning things on their head – just this week we reported on MPH Legal & Estate Agents, which claims to be the UK's first drive-thru estate agency.
The up-market agency sits in a former filling station in Cornwall and invites visitors to drive in, take a brochure and be on their way.
Perhaps there's a future in McEstate Agency – who knows?
So we’ve heard from the agencies, but what do the interior designers/suppliers think about all this? What do agencies generally want their offices to look like?
I caught up with Sarah Neate, Design & Marketing Manager for refurbishment experts Mid West Displays, Brett Sidaway, who worked in estate agency for more than a decade in the 1990s and is now a marketing manager at retail display specialist Wrights Plastics GPX, and Harry Simons, Partner at MPL Interiors, to get their thoughts on the matter.
How have agents' offices evolved in the last ten years?
Brett Sidaway: Surprisingly little. While retail interiors, which we are also involved in, get more and more adventurous agents’ offices remain fairly conservative in layout. New technology – digital, LED etc. – has been incorporated by some but there seems to be a long way to go to make visiting an office – for buyer or seller – a really memorable experience.
Sarah Neate: We used to provide mainly acrylic pockets, but the demand for these is reducing. It’s all about illuminated displays now.
If your office window display is not already illuminated then your competitors will outshine you. That said, with this being the current trend it is also important to differentiate your office from the ‘one next door’.
Harry Simons: We have lost the cheap, sterile look, which has to be a good thing. Estate agents know their image has to reflect that of its desired client base, and that means investing in quality fixtures and fittings.
It has been out with carpet tiles, suspended ceilings, strip lighting and cluttered windows displays and in with LED and task lighting, feature ceilings, low-level LED window displays. We have also seen a shift towards softer, tactile interior design, with wallpaper, sofas and lamps making branches feel more ‘homely’.
In your experience, which office layout/style is the most effective for estate agents?
SN: I find that when designing a new office window display for estate agents there are two main approaches that the client is looking to take.
The first is to fill the windows to include as many property details as possible, therefore show the potential client a huge range of properties to really capture their interest.
The second approach is low level or more minimal where the estate agent is looking to showcase key properties and capture the attention of a potential client. By giving good visibility into the office, it makes it much more inviting to enter the premises.
HS: This really depends on the floor plan and square footage. Transparency is a reoccurring theme, with agents wanting to be on display to advertise the fact they are open for business and are approachable with nothing to hide.
Therefore it’s not unusual for us to have all the agents’ desks public facing, with clean, uncluttered window displays so the public can see right in. Waiting areas also work really well, creating a relaxed environment for initial client conversations and a comfortable place for people to wait to be seen. And drinks stations are always a hit - offering a decent coffee is a real ice breaker!
What are you views on estate/letting agents working out of non-client-facing serviced offices?
BS: As a supplier it is terrible news but it follows a trend across a lot of sectors – many organisations are a collection of people working from home, communicating digitally and getting together in serviced rooms or offices for client meetings. As margins decrease and fees squeezed, it is a way of minimising costs. It’s completely counter intuitive and I think it will only be a model for a very small number of agents but it is here to stay.
SN: The presence of a high street office continues to be important to many house buyers where there is the availability to speak face-to-face with an expert.
A strong high street presence will enhance your brand awareness. In short, it’s all about balance – your office window display is your biggest advert, it is most likely the first impression that you give both off and online so make sure it emits the right message for your business.
HS: Agents do need to acknowledge their competition still has a High Street presence and if they're are tucked away in a serviced office, they will lose out to those that are in public-facing positions.
We are seeing a more holistic approach to office refurbishment, where good design and considered fittings promote better health and staff retention, and increase productivity.
So, from this, it seems that most estate agents veer to the more conservative, traditional look. But, with more and more agents entering the market over the next few years, it’s likely to be the innovative, risk-taking ones that really thrive.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today