Shopfronts, for those agencies that believe in them, are evolving into more than just a window for listings. The interior is now just as important as the window facing the street. Real Estate Business finds out how agencies are approaching the challenge
OVER THE past decade, the evolution of the real estate shopfront – and the office that sits within – has been shaped by consumer habits, changing design and the internet.
Consumers expect more than a cramped office with a flickering fluorescent light hanging behind a window plastered with window cards. They want to feel comfortable – as well as impressed.
Finding the balance between the two can be tricky, according to the principal at Sydney-based Cunninghams Property, John Cunningham.
“The shopfront is really there to show that you are serious about being in business, that you are prepared to promote your clients’ properties in a retail environment and that you want to look the part,” he says.
“This doesn’t mean you need a CBD location, but you must have exposure to be taken seriously.
“The shift from the standard single high street shopfront to mega or centre-style offices has really only been noticeable in the past 10 years,” he says.
“If you go back 20 years, there were very few mega offices in Sydney and during the ‘90s the trend was lots of small businesses operating out of high street shopfronts. The trend back to larger, more dominant offices began in Melbourne in the late ‘90s, and Sydney really started to see things change in and around 2000.
“Now there are usually one or two large offices with 30-plus staff requiring either purpose-built or extensively modified premises to house large property management departments, meeting rooms and storage.”
A BALANCING ACT
At any given point in time there’s a network in the process of revamping their franchise stores. Currently in the throes of updating their retail presence is Barry Plant Real Estate, which has more than 80 offices across Victoria.
“We revisited the look and feel of our offices last year with the help of the Best Group, a corporate interior design company,” says Mike McCarthy, CEO and director of the Barry Plant Group.
“We always thought we had a sharp, corporate type of look, but they challenged us on that. So the first thing they said was that when you stop and look at the office, there’s a lot of external signage – above the office, on the canopy and in the window.
“Once you come into the shop, they suggested it should be more of a welcoming feel rather than a sterile corporate feel, which we thought made sense. The client has already seen the branding, so you don’t need to kill them with branding once they’re inside the office.”
Barry Plant began the transformation with their recently opened office at Rosebud, on the Mornington Peninsula.
“We’re in the people business, we give them homes. So the designers said it’s about making people feel at home. They wanted to bring some elements of the home into the office instead of our stark red, white and blue corporate branding,” Mr McCarthy explains.
Peard Real Estate in Perth has also undergone a recent transformation.
“It’s been about 12 months since we revamped our display office,” says Byron Wallace, principal of the Hillarys Peard office, which is located at one of Western Australia’s biggest tourist locations.
“The importance of the shopfront is twofold: it exhibits sellers’ properties but it also attracts other sellers too.
“There’s about five million visitors here a year, so if we can display the properties as well as attract future listings, that’s perfect for us.
“We’ve gone for a warm inviting area, instead of being stark or sterile like I’ve seen at other offices. We have bi-fold doors, which open up the whole office so people can come in and sit down. We even have a spot for kids to sit.”
Another company looking to renovate their shopfronts is NSW and Qld-based Richardson & Wrench (R&W). Like Barry Plant, R&W approached a professional designer, Tim Leveson, to undertake the project.
“Customers want a space where they feel comfortable to talk with an agent about one of the biggest assets they own,” Mr Leveson, from Tim Leveson Interiors, says.
“People think it’s an extravagance to have a designer,” he adds. “They think they can do it themselves, but the importance of a designer is generally underestimated in the business world.
“I used to do a lot of residential property – styling properties for sales – which I did for about 14 years. After that I decided to get into interior design for both residential and commercial. That’s when we started makespacework.com, which is our tagline.”
According to Mr Cunningham, not only do principals need to keep the corporate/welcoming balance in check, they also have to make sure they aren’t going too over the top in terms of design.
“Get too outrageous and fashion kicks in, as well as the cost to change it,” he warns. “It’s a fine line between boring and safe; a statement still needs to be made, but seek professional advice.”
An office that looks like it means business is the safe option, according to Mr Cunningham.
“In my view, you need the customers to realise they are entering a real estate agency that has product for sale, looks smart and looks like it knows who it is and is open for business,” he says.
Mr McCarthy says he is very happy with the balance his offices have achieved.
“It’s been pretty challenging for us doing all of it, but overall it looks warm and inviting, and hopefully a place that someone would feel comfortable coming into and sitting down to have a chat about their property,” he says.
“We have our splashes of red and blue, but we also brought in some other colours likes greys and silvers to offset those. We decided we needed more tones that people find in the home, so our reception desk is now presented as stacked stone, which is quite popular.
“Getting away from the big corporate brand with the reception desk, we decided to put in a timber feature wall with a much smaller backlit brand.”
While you’ll often see the extremes when it comes to offices – old offices desperate for an update alongside ultra-modern shopfronts with chrome and polished concrete – Mr McCarthy claims Barry Plant aimed for somewhere in the middle with theirs.
“Our chairs have tended to be an absolute corporate red, but we’ve softened that down to something closer to orange. It still has the elements of our corporate side to it, but now it has a bit of a funky, inner-urban look, particularly combined with the carpet,” he says.
KEEP IT ORIGINAL
Just because a network wants to revamp their appearance doesn’t mean the same template should be used across the board, according to Mr Leveson.
“I’ve been involved with around six or seven new Richardson & Wrench offices over the last year,” he says. “As they’re all owned by individuals, we needed to discuss options with each owner.”
First impressions last, which is why Mr Leveson knows how important it is for real estate agents to get the atmosphere right.
“It’s like walking into a good café, school or pub: your first impression when you walk into a real estate agency is so important because you want people to feel that they can trust you and that you’re successful,” he explains. “Why would you sell your house with an old office with papers stuck all over the windows and an old sofa? It doesn’t give you confidence in the business.”
Individuality is important and each office needs to look to their local area for inspiration.
“One thing we wanted to push with R&W was to show the history of the brand. R&W is the oldest established real estate agency in Australia, so in all of them we’ve put up these beautiful old sales posters,” he says.
“In Coogee, we found a poster from around 1890 and used that in the office, so there’s a sense of history, which builds trust.
Mr Leveson’s overall message for principals is to stick to smart, clean surfaces while including a pop of colour to tie back to the corporate presence.
“This is the first impression of the agency for many clients and they are often very lasting impressions,” Mr Cunningham adds.
“Clean white, grey, black, timber and chrome are all the rage and are also timeless in their appeal; too much colour can become too ‘fashionable’.
“Light, bright uncluttered space that is both warm and inviting is the first impression an agency needs to present. Comfortable seating, iMacs and iPads are popular, as are uncluttered reception desks that are more like hotel lobbies,” he advises.
Mr Wallace from Peard also utilises touch screen interactivity with his consumers, but on a much larger scale.
“Displays still work, we still sell properties from our window cards as well as our touch screen,” he says.
“We have installed a 42-inch touchscreen outside our office so people can use it after hours. It has the entire group’s listings on it, including our own.
“Consumers can send emails from it, so that’s a little tool that we offer. We still have traditional window cards, but the touch screen is much easier to maintain because everything feeds through to it and keeps it updated.”
Having both window cards and a screen seems to be a winning formula for Barry Plant after Mr McCarthy conducted an experiment.
“One of our directors, who had both, took note of what people did when they stopped outside his shopfront, and what he found was people would look at the screen for a minute and then move over to the window cards.
“People don’t have the patience to sit and stare at a screen playing a slideshow. The window cards allow them to browse at their own speed and skip things outside their price bracket, or scan for a property with a pool.
“I think there is still a place for window cards in the right location. Some places without much foot traffic would be better off with TV screens to grab people’s attention as they drive past and therefore build top of mind awareness for their brand.”
However, Mr Leveson chooses not to incorporate iPads or touchscreens into his designs.
“There is a big push toward LCD screens to show all the properties for sale, which has been around for a while,” he says.“But for us, the use of applications on phones really renders the iPads on the walls redundant.
“Nobody will come into your office to use the touchscreen when they can use the one in their pocket, so we haven’t incorporated that into the offices I’ve worked on.”
THE ENGINE ROOM
One last decision a principal has to make when choosing to renovate a shopfront is the location of the staff.
Should a client be able to see the staff work stations, to see the office buzzing with agents making calls and closing deals?
Or, should the ‘guts’ of the operation be kept from view to keep a cleaner, more professional atmosphere?
According to Mr Cunningham, consumers don’t particularly want to feel that they are gawking at workers.
“The concept of the open office has had a bit of an overhaul of late with the need for privacy and a productive work space taking precedent over the fish bowl effect,” he says. “Slick reception areas with easily accessible meeting rooms, sign-up spaces and a customer computer terminal open to the public, which is away from the engine room, is now seen as the optimum.”
Mr McCarthy agrees that staff should be kept separate, but that doesn’t mean principals should ignore workstations when the rest of the space is renovated.
“Generally speaking, we’ve tried to maintain that division between the engine room and the public area out the front,” he says.
“Having said that, the new design does try to tie them in with the theme and feel, so when we have an office being fitted out, we carry the carpets through.
“We try to get the franchisees to carry the look and feel through the whole office, but the back-end of the office is where people sit and make calls, write on work boards, files and those sorts of things, so we don’t generally think the public is that interested in seeing all that.
“However, it’s important to keep your agents adjacent, or as close as possible, to the entrance so they can very quickly see a client when they come in.”
Of course, spacing restrictions can limit some offices and force staff to be on a completely different floor to the reception desk.
“Our sales reps aren’t visible, they’re not even on the same level; we’ve had to put them upstairs,” says Mr Wallace.
“The retail space we’re in is all shopfronts because we’re in a tourist destination, so we have all our agents upstairs on the second floor.”
But Mr Wallace doesn’t see this as a hindrance, and agents feel more comfortable in the commercial-style area upstairs.