Could YOUR business benefit from the 'Virtual High Street'?
Posted on 2nd October 2019
We’ve all seen the demise of the traditional high street over the past few years. Much of the blame has been put on ‘greedy’ landlords charging sky-high rents, coupled with local authorities failing to help local businesses whilst over-estimating rateable values.
But is this the truth? Could the truth actually lie in a complete change in consumer behaviour? In other words, in changes to how we buy everyday products and services in the 21st century? Let’s take a closer look.
Missing out the ‘traditional’ high street entirely
I don’t know about you, but when I need to buy something in person, I don’t go straight to the high street. I search on Google instead. And when I’ve found what I’m looking for, I’ll either walk or drive straight there. 9 times out of 10, this means travelling to an ‘out of town’ location such as a retail park – not the high street.
So, does this mean there’s no longer a need for certain suppliers to be present on the high street? In fact, it might be better for them not to be, as ‘out of town’ locations tend to be easier to get to, with easier and cheaper (or free) parking.
The rise and rise of online shopping
This is something else that’s frequently blamed for the decline of high street shopping, but I’m not sure this is the truth. I believe there’s much still to be said for going and touching and feeling what you want to buy – especially for personal items like clothes, shoes, and jewellery.
However, even if someone is planning to buy something in person, chances are they’ll still look online first. (Almost 80% of consumers search locally on Google before they visit a provider.)
And if they can’t find your business quickly and easily - or can’t navigate your website effectively if they do find it - you’re in trouble.
So, what’s the answer for small local businesses struggling to survive?
Is it to put a levy on all businesses selling online to create a more level playing field? Or maybe we just need to learn to live with a new way of shopping for local products and services?
As it turns out, neither! According to the Office of National Statistics, 82% of retail purchases are still made in-store. So, local businesses don’t necessarily need to compete with online-only retailers.
The ‘Virtual High Street’ offers a golden opportunity to these businesses
The new approach to shopping that we’ve just looked at might sound like a challenge to businesses that rely on local trade. But there’s actually a huge opportunity there. Let me explain.
The demise of the high street isn’t a new phenomenon. Just look at the difference in shops on the high street now to 40 years ago. The demise really started many years ago when small local retailers were priced off the high street to make way for the ‘big boys.’
Now, we’re simply entering a new era of how people shop – and things could well backfire on the big boys.
The state of the high street now is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’ In other words, the less likely you are to find what you’re looking for on the high street, the more likely you are to look for it online.
And so, the cycle perpetuates itself, as more and more people are driven off the actual high street – and onto the ‘Virtual High Street’.
So how do small local businesses take full advantage of this?
First and foremost, your business needs to be visible on the internet, whether or not you sell your products and services online. Your website is effectively your ‘shop window’ – and it needs to look good and be easy to find for those who ‘pass by’.
So, you need a modern, professional-looking, and attractive website that accurately reflects who you are, what you are, what you offer and how to find you. The site also needs to be fully responsive and easy to navigate on both desktop and mobile versions.
However, this is just the beginning. I’ve seen so many great websites that look fantastic, but they don’t get any traffic because they don’t appear in the right searches. Getting your search engine optimisation (SEO) right is equally crucial to success.
Secondly, you need an up to date listing on Google My Business that tells customers about your business, displays your contact information and opening times, and includes a map. You can also upload photos of your premises and products and ask satisfied customers to leave reviews. All this is great for your Google rankings!
These steps are a great starting point for getting your business found online. However, whether you manage your online presence yourself or hire someone to do it for you, the key is to keep updating your site and Google My Business page and adding new information regularly. That could be blog posts, social media posts, or main page content.
Finally, your business neds to be in the right location. Choosing premises that are out of town means you’ll probably pay lower rent and rates than for high street locations. As noted earlier, customers will probably find access and parking easier and cheaper, too.
What does the future hold?
I’m excited by how changes in consumer behavior could ultimately breathe new life into the smaller local business in our communities and reshape the way we shop.
Whatever happens in the future, it will certainly be interesting to see how events unfold.
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