The pandemic has altered our shopping habits almost beyond recognition.
High streets were already struggling pre-pandemic, and now businesses up and down the country have recently been plunged into administration.
But once life returns to some sort of normalcy, business owners will be praying that shoppers ditch some of their newfound online habits and support local towns.
Watford is one of those that’s pulling out all the stops to entice customers back to the high street whenever the pandemic can finally be put to bed.
Way back in October, when the prospect of a third nationwide lockdown appeared to be part of some fanciful reality, Hertfordshire’s largest town became home to the UK’s first ever WhatsApp High Street.
The pioneering initiative was drawn up to help small businesses that were hit by a dramatic drop in footfall.
Twelve firms on Watford’s Market Street joined the pilot programme, launched in partnership with Watford Borough Council.
Participating businesses received expert guidance and advice on how to best use the WhatsApp Business app.
With a number of crucial features at their disposal, such as creating business profiles, product catalogues, automated messages, QR codes and business stickers, it’s enabled some businesses to adjust quickly to the online world.
Both independents and big businesses have struggled to stay afloat over the last 11 months, but of course the months that followed the WhatsApp Business launch were far from easy.
Herts’ move up the Tiers, before being plunged into a nationwide lockdown on January 5, meant the success of the WhatsApp initiative is hard to judge.
At the time of its launch in October, however, Jamie, from Underground Tattoo, said the initiate would help them keep in touch with their customer base.
Businesses taking part can now communicate on issues like social distancing in small premises, new opening hours, stock issues, table reservations or reduced menus, with customers scanning QR codes that companies can place in their windows.
“Getting a tattoo or piercing is a really personal experience,” he said.
“Customers like to talk it through and build up a rapport with the artist or body piercer so setting Underground Tattoo up on WhatsApp Business is a no brainer.
“It means we can continue to build relationships with clients even in a world of social distancing and more limited appointments.
“The catalogue function on the app is great too – it means I can share example designs or curated ear designs with clients to look at on their phones.
“I’m really excited to see what WhatsApp can do for my business and my friends and colleagues on Market Street.”
Elected Mayor Peter Taylor from Watford Borough Council said: “I’m delighted a global brand like WhatsApp has chosen to work with us on this initiative, which is the first of its kind in the UK.
“Local businesses are vital to our economy, bringing jobs and so much character to our town. We are committed to working with them to ensure Watford’s economy succeeds as we open up after a difficult period of lockdown.
“Digital skills and new technology are at the heart of our plans for the borough, which is why we are helping local businesses to adapt to the new circumstances we find ourselves in.”
Dan Lenan, WhatsApp Partnerships Manager, added: “As high streets all over the UK struggle with huge challenges presented by Covid-19, it’s more important than ever for businesses to find new ways to connect with customers, and for us in turn to support our local high streets.
“We partnered with Watford Council to provide training to local businesses as diverse as an Italian delicatessen, a locksmith and a tattoo parlour, all of which are now using the free WhatsApp Business app to take orders, organise deliveries and talk to their customers.
“We hope the app will help small businesses both in Watford and all over the country to improve communications with customers and support their businesses throughout these difficult times.”
Watford businesswoman’s aim to kick-start economy
A Watford digital marketing specialist is on a mission to save the UK’s local high streets – and is calling on local independent retailers to take part.
Kate Davies, from Digital Devils, is offering 10 places on the beta-launch of her high street promotion programme to independent businesses. It’s free of charge but only open to those with a WD postcode, and entries closed on Friday (February 5).
The total value of the package is more than £5,000 but Kate, from Watford, says she’s keen to spread the opportunity across as many businesses as possible to help kickstart the local retail economy.
“This is something my team and I have been working on for many months, in fact, ever since the first lockdown,” she said.
“We are now ready to be able to launch the campaign which will hopefully become the template for similar efforts right across the UK but I need to properly test the system with real data, real businesses and most crucial, real people. I live and work here in Watford and I want to help where I can.
“That is why I’m seeking 10 local independent businesses with a high street presence who feel they would really benefit from some professional marketing guidance to help them put plans in place to recover from the huge devastation so many have suffered from due to the pandemic.”
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Kate’s new programme will see successful applicants benefit from professional digital marketing support across their websites and social media plus access to voucher and offer platforms.
They will also get a contribution towards their advertising budgets to help to execute their campaigns to help encourage both new and existing customers.
She added: “It may feel like further doom and gloom every time we turn on the news but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The trick is to reach that position ready and raring to go with your marketing to welcome back previous customers and attract new ones.
“It isn’t as easy as just turning the tap on when Boris announces the end of lockdown, you need to be warming up the system so you are ready to roll as soon as possible. I’m here to help so please do get in touch if you think this system might help you.”
Business Park revamp
In an attempt to drive more businesses to the town, Watford Borough Council’s plans for a huge £20m major redevelopment project have now been given the nod.
The 30 hectare Watford Business Park – which is located by Greenhill Crescent and Faraday Close in Watford, Hertfordshire – is one of the key employment hubs in the town.
Over 100 businesses employ between 1,000 and 1,200 people from Watford and beyond, but a significant proportion of the existing buildings are old and not geared to the current needs of business.
That’s all set to change though, with Watford Borough Council working with local partners to redevelop the site.
A £5m Local Growth Fund investment from Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has been granted to improve the business park and increase its employment capacity, with the potential to create an additional 180 jobs in the town.
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Studio Egret West, an award-winning architecture, urban design and landscape architecture practice, has been appointed to create the design for a new landmark development, to be known as Greenhill Works, which is the first phase of the council’s proposed regeneration scheme.
Greenhill Works marks the start of investment by the council and Hertfordshire LEP to regenerate this key employment hub in the town and to ‘set the tone’ for companies looking to move into the area.
Work on the new development is expected to start later this year.
It’ll commence once the existing buildings have been demolished next month.
Construction is then expected to get underway in October 2021.