Town Centre Regeneration and the ‘Virtual Shop Tour’
Increased competition from out-of-town retail parks and branded mini stores has made a significant impact on the traditional high street with many smaller outlets forced to shut up shop. Add to this the acceptance of online shopping by consumers of all ages and one begins to appreciate the challenge for owners of traditional retail businesses. However, whilst little can be done to stave off the onslaught of the retail park, it can be argued that the internet offers the small retailer an excellent opportunity to win back valuable customers, real and virtual.
Taking the shop to the customer
A typical small retail outlet has display shelves, storage space, staff facilities, a serving counter and a window display. These basic overheads are the same whether it is busy or not. A high percentage of traditional small retail outlets do not have websites or use the internet to market their products and services. In many instances this is due to the perceived time and cost associated with the set up and management of a website.
If a business is managing to cover its overheads and carrying a stock of goods, the internet must be considered as a means of promoting this stock to a wider customer base. A website is now an essential part of the marketing mix as a means of raising awareness of the shop and its contents to potential customers. Updating a site can be managed during quieter periods – in the shop itself if necessary.
To reward and strengthen loyalty, existing customers with access to the internet can be kept up-to-date on new lines and special offers via the website itself, plus email newsletters and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Where there is no funding available for training or establishing a web presence, it is still important that the costs involved should be viewed in terms of potential benefits. How many retailers themselves – or their family members and staff – use the internet to book holidays or purchase items from Amazon and eBay? Another thing to consider is the willingness of some consumers to pay more for a product over the internet than in a shop apparently for the sake of convenience.
In setting up and managing a web presence, the potential return far outweighs the effort involved, particularly when stock is already in place. Feedback from visitors to the website and social media accounts will offer an indication of potential demand for a dedicated online store. Again this is relatively easy to set up and maintain (making good use of the shop’s quieter periods) and, while the processing and dispatching of internet orders can be done during normal work hours, the online store is open for business 24/7.
Retailers can also take full advantage of a number of free services provided by Google, including the excellent ‘Analytics’ which shows how many visitors have viewed a particular web page, on what day at what time and from which geographical area. The reality is that independent retailers have at their disposal the very same digital marketing tools as the leading supermarkets and retail stores. Using Google Analytics is indeed as easy as using online banking.
Town Centre Virtual Shop Tours
Further assistance to retailers to help maximise the potential from digital marketing may be available through Town Centre Regeneration Programmes. In addition to funding for shop frontage improvements and signage there may be support for website and online store development. Some Local Authorities support Town Centre Websites, which act as a portal for independent retailers and businesses within the main shopping area. This ‘clustering’ of shops and businesses creates a website more appealing to visitors who can immediately recognise the diversity of outlets available – together with their products and services – by taking a ‘Virtual Tour’. See example
A key aspect of this approach is the provision of a web page for every shop and business – whether or not they have a website – as it offers those without knowledge of websites and viral marketing a first step on the internet ladder. Initially, all that is required from retailers is product photographs and copy which can be uploaded to the Town Centre Website on their behalf. This can be followed by workshops and online tutorials to help develop an understanding of how to set up and manage a basic website and social media accounts. Such workshops can then be extended further to include the development of individual online stores.
The investment in setting up and managing a Town Centre Website is very small in relation to overall regeneration costs and offers a high profile in terms of local government business support. An additional advantage is the positive message such a website sends to businesses looking for a suitable location to set up or expand their premises.
Richard Edwards MA