Letting agents aren’t alone. It’s been no secret that retail outlets have been struggling even before the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has galvanised any existing downward trends of high street businesses, with those already on a knife’s edge declaring insolvency almost immediately. Our humble, iconic high street has undergone a rapid transformation this year.

This has never been more stark than the news that Debenhams is to be wound down with the potential loss of 12,000 jobs coupled with Arcadia already at risk of collapse with a further 13,000 roles in jeopardy the high street as we know it is in dire straits.

Although the second half of this year enjoyed an increase in footfall in cities, towns and, interestingly, coastal areas, with numbers greater than pre-lockdown levels those numbers are not reaching high street vendors. For instance, information gathered from mobile tracking data confirms numbers are still below pre-Covid-19 figures, with 31% of footfall experienced in central London, 49% in Manchester and 52% in Birmingham. 

But with such rapid changes; businesses of all types with a presence on the high street have been forced to ask tougher questions about their prospects and letting agents are no exception. 

Covid-19 has blurred the lines between being online and the high street agent’s need to maintain a more personal connection with customers through their high street presence. Sir John Timpson, architect of Timpson shoe repairs, was commissioned by the government in 2018 to identify the issues plaguing our high streets and towns and commented; “If lockdown had lasted for four weeks, then it would have just been a short and inconvenient blow to cash flow, but because it has lasted so long it has caused significant changes to how people live their lives. The Covid-19 crisis will cause five years’ change to our high streets in less than 12 months.” 

Because of the need to pivot and seek out alternative working options; the pandemic appears to have accelerated the move to a more robust online presence and has thrown out the question to the industry as to whether the presence of a high street letting agent is actually warranted. Historically, the property sector is slower than other industries to adopt and implement change. 2020 has changed all that. Businesses have actively embraced virtual working with online viewings and engaging with technology that has enabled a more automated working methodology. Until now high street letting agents were a solid source of local knowledge and expertise. However, in our strange new normal this structure is shifting quickly as consumers access information using Google search, property portals like Rightmove, Zoopla and On The Market to find out the facts and figures relating to property sales and rental prices.

Corporate and office workers have been told only to return to urban offices if they had no other way of working from home, meaning the usual ebb and flow of footfall to local shops, meeting places, coffee houses and local eateries, has meant the number of people visiting the high street have plummeted. This has had a devastating knock-on effect for businesses built around the expected numbers usually associated with a bustling and vibrant high street and local community. Whilst it’s been forecast that around 75% of workers may be working in offices from January 1, 2021, there has also been a 50% increase in enquiries exploring reducing office space to help cut costs and reduce the need to have a physical presence in the shop front.

An emerging trend is the conversion of commercial offices into residential space. John Lewis is just one major company actively exploring converting their commercial premises and holdings into affordable housing. This has been further supported with new legislation introduced in September that enables commercial tenancies to be transformed into residential homes with no planning permission required.

There is also discussion about relocating offices to ‘hubs’: areas outside major cities. At the very least it’s expected there will be a continued need and desire for a combination of remote and office working, with some companies making the break early by moving their business entirely online shortly after the first lockdown. 

The bottom line here is that the high street letting agent has to embrace proptech, automated and virtual systems of working to remain relevant. 

Deloitte’s head of retail property observes: “The challenge is how town centres will be managed. A more cohesive vision would be a smaller retail quarter with more residential housing at either end of what was the high street.”

What this means for town centres and the high street in the long term remains unclear, but cannot be ignored. What is clear though, is the invaluable contribution virtual technologies have made to property viewing and the lettings process during this time of major upheaval and uncertainty. It is expected most companies will retain many of their newly acquired virtual services, with some businesses moving away from the high street to a purely online presence. Others view their high street location as an opportunity to generate and lead a greater sense of community, which may prove to be a wise choice in the longer term should offices relocate to out lying areas in the near future.

InventoryBase and other online property technology specialists have fast become the go-to resource for struggling high street lettings agents as they look to streamline their processes with intelligent property inventory and property management software that supports and enhances the users more personalised way of working. If nothing else, Covid-19 has shown us that there are alternatives and what is indeed possible by exploring and embracing adaptive automated systems like Live and Self Service inspections.