When I launched my business back in 1982, the commercial and consumer environment was very different from today.
Fresh from victory in the Falklands, Prime Minister Thatcher began her ambitious programme of economic and social reforms, which effectively raised net household incomes and created a new retail boom, mainly on the high street. Back then, edge-of-town shopping was more or less confined to outlets dealing in “bulky goods” (eg washing machines and television sets) while competition from the internet was far into the future. As a result, retail rents soared, allowing the major chains to consolidate their position at the expense of independent, locally-owned traders. This applied as much to those offering services as goods. When I felt DJ Alexander required a wider profile and decided to move from Leith to a more central location in Edinburgh, it was to Dundas Street on the periphery of the city centre. It would have been uneconomic to acquire premises in the main retail core.
Of course, almost four decades on, much has changed. Granting planning permission to allow large “mainstream” shopping centres to be built on the periphery of cities obviously hit the high street, but the internet seems to have been an even bigger game-changer.
But just as the way the internet has altered the way many of us shop for socks and ties, so it applies to our methods of buying or renting homes. I freely admit to being a late convert to the influence of the internet within the property market. At first, I felt purchasing anything from a bag of nails to a five-bedroom house through this method would be a fad – just as catalogue shopping proved to be a fad (for the bulk of the population) in the 1960s and 70s. My mind finally changed with the smartphone revolution when it became apparent that folks could view houses, not just sitting at home over a laptop, but on the bus, the train or sitting in the park with a lunchtime sandwich. The result has been a revolutionary transfer of business activity within the estate and letting agency sectors from on-street showrooms to the internet.
This has led to a complete change of strategy among those agencies that wish to stay ahead of the game. In our case, the result is a new portal, Apropos, which utilises cutting-edge technology combined with a network of property professionals providing face-to-face client connections. Initially, the intention behind Apropos was to secure consolidation of the business lest we be left behind in a rapidly-changing technical environment. However, it will now be used even more effectively by extending business beyond our central Scotland core and, eventually, rolling out the service across the UK. Having grown a 30-strong technical team to launch and operate Apropos, we are now recruiting a network of professionals with unique experience of the letting sector. Eventually the network will include house sales as well. This is a symptom of the fact that despite all the changes referred to above, the human factor will continue to be vital to sales and lettings. Most potential buyers and tenants with whom we deal still have a desire to view properties personally before making a decision and they will continue to want face-to-face advice and information. Despite bringing great advances to our sector, technology will never replace people.
Showrooms will still have a role to play, but only where appropriate. Because aspects of the Edinburgh property market are unique among UK cities outside London – and our “roots” are in the capital – we have retained our principal office and showroom in the New Town. However Glasgow, where we swapped our premises on Bath Street in the city centre for a back-office function on the southside, perhaps reflects the direction that the wider sector is likely to move. Latterly, more people came through the Bath Street door seeking change for parking meters than to buy or rent a property.
- David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander