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Estate agency shopfitting - sassy shop fronts sell houses

publication date: Jul 1, 2010
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According to psychologists, lilac is the colour to use to encourage people to spend more money. You might laugh, but shrink-think is a serious business and drives the layout and design of major retailers and supermarkets.

If you think that has no relevance for estate agency, will you be the one bobbing in the wake of your rivals as they rush to renovate? Branches full of busy bodies tapping away on computers can be intimidating places to outsiders, which is not good for business. Although the first stop is the internet for the majority of home hunters, for vendors, there’s no contest. They want to see who they are dealing with and the theory is that a shopfront tells them all they need to know, subconsciously, about the success or otherwise of the company. Savvy agencies have made changes which they hope will make customers feel less like intruders.

“Setting up your stall to make a strong and lasting impression that sends out all the right signals to the right type of client base is essential” says Mike Simons of MPL Interiors. The image and interior of any office makes a huge contribution to an agency’s pecking order so the first thing that has to right is the exterior. Make it strong and positive so that when those passersby become vendors, landlords, tenants or buyers your business is at front of their mind. If funds are tight the emphasis has to be on parts everyone sees so make sure signage, displays and lighting are working well. Ideally the exterior design and statement should be carried all the way through the premises and cover every aspect of the interior design”.

THE WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT

Says Peter Ford, Group Operations Director of Badger Holdings (Townends and Regents): “It is important to Peter Fordoffer a welcoming environment. We have placed reception areas in our branches. This provides a focus for customers as they enter and is less intimidating than having to approach an agent from across a desk. We see the need to invest and support a strong brand image and Townends have a rolling programme over 12 months to refurbish those branches in need of updating. We want to provide an environment which is in keeping with our new branding and that shows we want to engage with people, not talk at them.”

Roger Platt in Maidenhead is part of Sequence Group UK, a network of 300 agencies around the country, operating locally under 11 trading names. It was one of the first agencies in the Bucks and Berks area to have a radical re-think of office design to make it more customer friendly.

Says Area Director Michael O’Flaherty: “There’s an argument that it’s getting less important to have a shopfront because of the websites, but we positively encourage people to come in. We have the Home Bar with stools, sofa seating and huge aerial maps of Maidenhead so people can see where the properties are. The sofa is leather, we’ve had it a while but leather looks better as it gets older - just like us.

This is a marked change, says Jared Saggers, Director at Kraft, “Trends in estate agency refurbishment are often aimed towards creating a more domestic feel to office interiors. Rather than the minimalist approach of the last decade, owners now want their office interiors to reflect the homes their clients aspire to own. We are using patterned wallpapers and tiled floorings. Warm, timber furniture finishes also work well alongside patterned chair fabrics. We’ve recently used built-in alcove shelving with recessed LED lighting, which can display vases or sculptures alongside more conventional marketing materials.

“Lighting plays an important part in the design process. Instead of an overbearing wash of ambient light, we often create a softer effect by adding wall uplighters and pendant lighting to the lighting plans. Large scale wall images have been popular for a number of years now, and still are, says Jared. “They introduce a visual theme that may have little to do with estate agency. Forests, windsurfers and sunsets have all been used to introduce a sense of wellbeing to busy workplaces.”

And desks are disappearing too, says Michael, “We don’t put people at desks with agents; we have removed that barrier. Too many agents hide behind their desks and PCs, in their comfort zone. We get out from the desk and meet people and hope that is welcoming. We have big windows, so that people can see us as they walk by. They are not filled with properties, we have just 24, changed daily. The changes have had tangible benefits, people do comment on the customer area. We look different to all the other agencies in the town.”

Mike Simons says that estate agency became more fashion conscious before the recession but, “We’re seeing signs of high expectations again and innovative design that captures the heart of a business doesn’t have to cost any more than refurbishment with no imagination.”

WOW FACTOR FLOORS

Independent agency Douglas & Gordon, with 15 offices in London, began an expensive overhaul of their offices two years ago, with the final one just being finished now. Considering the dire state of the market when they began, the investment was a bold move, but they consider it money well spent. Costing for each branch was different depending on the scale of work required, but £500,000 for an office was not unusual.

“For instance,” says Sales Director George Franks, “in Upper Richmond Road there are nine estate agency offices side by side. People have to decide which one to walk in to, so that is why we decided to install a floor made up of tiny glass balls. It cost a fortune, but it looks fabulous.

“We have spent a lot of money on shop fronts. The market has been strong recently and the level of walk-ins has been high anyway, but I have noticed a big difference in people staying and talking, sitting in a comfortable chair, rather than grabbing a set of particulars and rushing out. An estate agents’ is an odd thing: a shop and an office. People can feel anxious coming in, we want to put them at ease.

“It has also been a big morale boost for the staff. So many agencies have a back office noticeable for its mould, damp and horrid carpets. Our staff all work long hours, so they enjoy a nice, quiet place to sit and have lunch.”

D&G used specialist brand strategy and interior design firm i-am associates for the refurbishment. A combination of suggestions has produced what George Franks believes is an innovative environment. “We have interactive glass maps which negotiators use to show people where the property is, the route to the tube or the office. We have little tables with Lego for the children to play with. There are huge pendant lights, one office has a massive concrete reception desk. We wanted to be green and minimise landfill stuffed with old office furniture. But we also wanted a design which would last.”

Pete ChampionPete Champion is Director of Interior Design at i-am associates and is passionate about the psychology of design and its impact on business. “Agencies tend to be male orientated, so a lot of left brain thinking dominates decisions, it’s very rational, all about lists and numbers,” he explains. “The right side of the brain is the creative, intuitive bit, which processes colour and music. There is a trend for realising right brain is not just fluffiness, it’s a hard nosed commercial tool.”

So, could tapping into the emotional side of a potential customer’s brain can pay dividends? “If a seller sees an innovative shop front, they are going to think this agency is going to be able shift my house,” reasons Champion. “It is also a subtle statement of brand position. Psychology plays a huge part and it is what we are all about. The first stage is standing out from the crowd on the street. People think it is worth a look. Then the threshold stage is what happens when you walk through door. Some offices feel intimidating, you feel as though you are interrupting someone. To make customers feel at ease, we create a customer space, a mini lounge.”

Naturally, i-am considers its services are good value. “We are not the cheapest, but not the most expensive either. The cost represents a significant investment and has to add value to the business.”

Trevor Abrahamson, of Glentree Estates which handles multi-million pound properties, is doubtful such an investment is worth it. For years, he resisted staff pleas for renovation. He eventually relented, but doesn’t think it has made any difference to his client business. “I was forced to change my mind,” he admits. “We have just finished renovations which cost more than £500,000. I am not convinced that we have done any more business than we would have anyway. And that’s after working out of a Portakabin for two years while the refurbishment was going on. However, we now have a staff kitchen some of our properties would be proud to have.”

Franchisees’ choices

Franchisees, however, must stick to a national branding. Nick Goble holds the franchise of a string of Winkworth agencies in South West London. “There are guidelines in signage, but and interior design is down to the individual franchisee,” he says. “You might think, how do we compete with the internet when they don’t have shop front costs, but in my experience people want to see the colour of the eyes of the agent they are dealing with.

“Our Battersea office is one of the biggest in London. We designed it with glass, so you can see everything. The logic is transparency in the way we work. The other aspect is the relaxed environment for the staff to work in, it has resulted in more productivity, that has been impressive. Clients see we are doing really well, and that’s helped to increase our market share.”

If Goble had brought in a specialist firm to do the renovations in Battersea, he reckons it would have cost around £250,000, but they organised it themselves for £75,000. Other branches have also been revamped at slightly less cost.

“It was a huge investment, but I have never looked back,” he says. “It has made an impact. and in an area like Battersea, you have 50-plus agents against you. We have pods, sofas, access to the internet, a special soft seating area for tenants. The idea is to be approachable, not pretentious.”

The most cost effective time to introduce a change of image is often when agencies merge. When Chesterton and Humberts joined forces recently, many rebranded offices were redesigned and a programme is in place to do the remainder.

Says C&H Marketing Director Neville Page: “It is essential for state agents to have a shopfront and maintain a presence on the High Street. The front of branch has soft surroundings to welcome people, with formal meeting rooms for those who prefer privacy. Depending on what is being done, redesigning an office will take around six months, with the cost varying, of course, on the size of branch.”

Moving out of town

It isn’t all the flash city centre agencies that have the smart offices. Fine is a new brand that is part of Spicerhaart and their offices, wherever they are in the country, need to reflect the brand’s upmarket position. The branch in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire offers clean design by MPL Interiors with an easily recognisable corporate image.

National branding wasn’t an issue for Charters, an independent agency in Winchester, but what they wanted to do was present an office that reflected its location; Winchester is an historic city but it is also forward thinking, modern and smart. The design, again by MPL, lends an exceptionally smart, but warm ambience to the agency, wooden floors, clean crisp displays and a full width uncluttered window… but with a big cosy rug and a delicate chandeliers. It may sound slightly unusual but it works; it’s a place you’d be happy to settle into, relax and find an equally comfortable new home.

George F. White, one of the major firms in the North East, took a more radical approach. 15 months ago, they took their business off the High Street in Barnard Castle in County Durham and moved to a business park about a mile away. They display no properties in their window, or even around the office. The step has been a huge success, says Steve McOwan who is Head of Property. Not the least because everyone can find a parking space now. Barnard Castle is notoriously tight on parking, especially on market day and during the summer holidays.

“Most people use the internet, no-one buys a house on impulse by popping into an estate agent’s while they are out buying the milk,” he says. “Thirty years ago, estate agents were the font of all knowledge, now you can stay at home and get access to all the information you need about an area.”

An office is still necessary, he says, to demonstrate to vendors that the business is a bona fide operation, but their position in the market is defined by word of mouth and by advertising rather than a shop front.

“We have a bright, modern office where people can chat to negotiators informally, without being interrupted by tyre kickers – people who wander in out of the rain – or those who spot a neighbour’s house in the window and come in to talk about it. The staff are more focused on talking to people who have made an effort to get there, so are committed buyers or sellers. We do not get time wasters.”

This bold approach is being rolled out in other George F. White branches. From lightbulb moment to removal van, the move happened within six months and was not as expensive as setting up a conventional shop.

“In 20 years, there won’t be any estate agents on the High Street,” predicts McOwan. “The internet will market the property and the agents will manage the sale. All our hard work will happen once we have interest in the property.”