In December, the BBC reported that the UK economy continued to grow, but that consumer spending had slowed down. The BBC commissioned research which showed large numbers of vacant shops in England, Wales and Scotland and suggest that this is down to consumers changing habits and the downturn.
I live and work in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire which I think are relatively ‘lucky’ areas according to this article. Cambridge seems to be doing quite well and the town centre has remained busy during the recession, so Cambridge has managed to keep its head above water pretty well and the high street is nothing like as bad as those. Still, however, there are currently 4 vacant shops on my shop’s street where I would ‘normally’ expect there only to be one at this time of year.
Nearby Letchworth-Garden-City is looking great at the moment and it is clear that the council has spent money and considerable effort to keep things looking as good as they can with many vacant shops. But still there are many many vacant shops. And the smaller town of Royston, feels like a ghost of its former self with many vacant shops. What it must be like in some of the more effected areas I shudder to think.
It is certainly true that we are all shopping much more online and I think that shops, these days, need to do a lot more than ever to tempt customers out (particularly in this recent chilly weather!).
So what is it that will tempt us out to actually visit a shop instead of relying on shopping online?
If a business area is all about simple buying and selling of products (eg electrical goods) then people will surely be inclined to come and look at your electrical shop and get your advice and then actually buy it online from whoever can offer the best price. So if I wanted to start a business selling electrical products it would certainly be a web based and price keen one. The trouble with this kind of business online is that if you aren’t offering the cheapest price, you just won’t succeed online for these sort of well known products which are so easy to price compare online.
But for specialist things and services, people are not really going to want to shop online. For example I was examining my options recently when I needed some pictures framing. I did have a look online and found several good companies doing this, but I just wasn’t convinced about choosing the mount and everything myself on a screen. So I opted for the very slightly more expensive option of a local sole-trader who was able to advise me and the pictures look great.
However – I found that it was actually rather hard to find this sole trader because he doesn’t have a website! I had to ask around for suggestions and eventually found an advert for him in our local parish magazine. Not ideal. If only he had either a website of his own with minimal details on it or, ideally, a listing on one of the other big sites which are available advertising local experts.
In a previous article (http://www.bmmagazine.co.uk/As-Google-launches-Google-Instant-should-SMEs-be-investing-in-bricks-and-mortar-not-SEO.997) I talked about how much it costs to launch a website these days and to keep it near the top of the search engines. This is why I think these general local websites can be a great option for the small business to me – you know the sort – when you search for ‘Picture framer near Cambridge’ they come up with lists of local businesses offering this with just their details and ideally. They are good as long as when you search for ‘picture framer near cambridge’ their site comes up near the top...becuase then you know that their team are investing in SEO for you, so they can be a marker to your own website offering your local service.
However, I know that if I was starting a my bespoke engagement ring design business now, I would certainly be looking at bricks and mortar and bagging a great bargain on a nice high street than investing hugely in a website. I would research my area very carefully and make sure that I was offering something that people want in that area and go for it in one of these lovely town centres.
I think that there is still a lot of future for our high streets but they need to change. Busineses can still do well on the high street as long as they are offering the type of thing that can’t do well as an online-only business. But these businesses do need to be able to be found online too. It is even possible that one in 5 of our local town high streets needs to pair right down to just a small handful of shops, letting the others flourish more as centres for service-type of businesses. Whether this is possible in practice, I am unsure.