To create a healthy appetite for hitting the high street again, and rev up local economies, councils need to get people onboard online first, says CAN’s Karen Pagett.
With the country in and out of lockdown for the past year, you might imagine people are straining at the leash to get back into real shops. But, as with everything about the COVID-19 pandemic, current research is showing how people feel about this varies. How they’ve experienced the past 12 months will colour how confident they feel about venturing out again.
But one thing isn’t up for debate – and that’s how much high streets need local people back spending asap. A new report from business insurance provider, Simply Business, reveals that multiple lockdowns have cost small and medium-sized businesses double the sums they projected. Based on a survey sample of average losses applied to the six million SMEs in the UK, they estimate the total cost is around £126.6 billion. With those SMEs accounting for 99% of all businesses and 33% of jobs, we can easily grasp the sort of impact this could have on local economies.
The battle to get people spending again on their local high streets needs to begin online. Why? Because almost everyone has got used to doing almost everything digitally. It’s become the norm to do your weekly food shop on the supermarket website or app, especially for those who are (or feel) more vulnerable. Googling “best presents for mums” has replaced browsing in shops in person for that perfect gift. Homemade instant coffee in your favourite mug while speaking to a friend on Zoom has supplanted meeting them in Costa for a proper latte.
When making preparations for the reopening of non-essential retail from 12 April, followed by hospitality from 17 May, and everything else after 21 June, there is little point putting effort into street banners and high street reward schemes if people are still indoors on their devices where they’ve got used to being for the past 12 months.
Local councils need to devote time to communicating with people online – where they’re getting their information – to lay the ground for them doing more stuff out and about.
How do people feel about shopping IRL again?
The research team at local government communications agency, Westco, has been pulling together the latest stats from pollsters Ipsos MORI and YouGov on the attitudes of British adults to returning to the high street:
- An average of between 62% and 68% (depending on the poll) are happy to shop in non-essential retail on the high street.
- 73% want to support their local shops and businesses.
- 46% say lockdown has made them more inclined to shop locally.
However, older age groups are less comfortable high street shopping. Some 63% of those aged over 65 are happy to go back to the high street compared to 72% of 35-49s. The main barriers for reluctant people are:
- Crowds (52%).
- Feels too soon (47%).
- Catching COVID-19 (47%).
- Everything available online (40%).
- Social distancing making it less enjoyable (33%).
The shift to online shopping might be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. Retail was heading that way long before the pandemic struck. The Office for National Statistics Opinions and Lifestyle Survey from 19 March 2021 found 21% of adults planned to continue doing more grocery shopping online once the pandemic is over than they did before. This rises to 33% for those shopping online for other things.
Giving people reasons to get out and about
It follows that to get people in the right frame of mind to go shopping on the high street again, you need to both build up their confidence in the safety measures put in place and remind them of the benefits of the offline – as opposed to the online – experience. Behaviour change principles tell us to do this gradually through carefully planned stages of messaging.
Whilst – or even before – people contemplate going out of the home to shop, they could be reminded of what they’ve been missing. The empty high street where they once sat in a café or swam at the pool or browsed an independent gift shop. The interaction with people serving them – maybe shopkeepers they’d previously stopped to chat with, or just that basic human contact.
You could also remind people about other experiences you can only have in person on the high street. When you pop out for a loaf of bread and see something you really like in a shop window so go in to find out how much it is. Or you bump into a friend you haven’t seen for ages and decide to stay out and have a coffee with them instead of going straight home.
Westco and CAN have developed a suite of “Return of the High Street” creatives which can be used FREE on council channels, based on these ideas of nudging residents in stages back to supporting local businesses. The free campaign pack also includes the research behind the creative approach and ways to evaluate your local campaign. Read more and download the creative suite on the Westco website.
Catch up on the launch webinar for the high street campaign that will walk you through the approach.
Get help from your happy shoppers
There are those who are already happy to go back to shopping in person (and, as shown in the polls mentioned earlier, it’s around two-thirds of adults).
You could encourage these people to become advocates for local businesses by asking them to post on social media about how much they are enjoying being back on the high street. This should create a sense amongst the reluctant that this is the “new normal” – moving back towards the old normal, but still with a degree of safety.
Kathy Kyle Bonomini, of the award-winning DigiKind agency which has been helping small businesses create a digital presence during the pandemic, says: “Once we unlock and reopen, these businesses can take the online relationships they’ve created with customers and continue them offline.
“As we recover, we need to not just focus on saving the high street but reimagining it and being creative about that. Driving people from online to offline activities means developing a word-of-mouth economy, with locals as community cheerleaders and brand ambassadors. That’s the idea behind our “adopt-a-shop campaign” – people supporting a local business and then sharing that support with their friends and family through social media.”
Follow DigiKind on Twitter for plenty of great ideas to support your high streets.
Communicate online – as loud as you can!
At CAN we’re big fans of digital programmatic advertising as a way of amplifying messages so they reach the optimum number of people – and the right people. CAN’s Sales Director, John-Paul Danon, says: “So, most of your residents are currently spending most of their time at home and their media consumption is largely online.
“We can make sure you reach 95% of those residents multiple times in the coming days and weeks as the economy opens up to encourage them to ‘shop local’ – by targeting specific local postcodes with programmatic ads. These ads are served on the news and lifestyle websites people in target demographics visit regularly and in their social media feeds. We can run an online survey in real time as the campaign rolls on, first to benchmark and then to measure the impact of your campaign.”
John-Paul has recorded a five-minute easy explanation of how programmatic works and how it can be applied successfully to your high street campaign.
The Government’s £50-million ERDF-based Reopening High Streets Safely Fund tasks councils with supporting their local businesses to bounce back from the pandemic – including through marketing. Applications for it have been extended until 21 June 2021. So, if your council hasn’t already made use of this funding, make sure your local businesses benefit from it.
The high street has been under threat for many years. But, far from the pandemic being its death knell, the disruption caused by Covid might just provide the opportunity the high street needed to change behaviours and give local shopping a much more positive future.