The world’s biggest private messaging service has created the UK’s first ‘WhatsApp High Street’ – allowing small and medium-sized companies to connect easily with their customers. Businesses taking part can now communicate on issues like social distancing in small premises, new opening hours, stock issues, table reservations or reduced menus. Twelve firms on Market Street, in Watford, Herts., have joined the pilot programme, with experts from WhatsApp training them to use its free-to-download Business app as a shopfront for their products and services.
Among those taking part is Underground Tattoo, a local tattoo parlour which also offers piercings.
Jamie, from Underground Tattoo, said: “Getting a tattoo or piercing is a really personal experience.
“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.”
The scheme has been welcomed by the Watford Borough Council as well as central government.
It follows a nationwide poll which revealed two thirds of businesses have seen the number of shoppers fall since lockdown.
The survey of more than 750 ‘bricks and mortar’ companies found 43 percent felt the drop in footfall was down to an unease over social distancing and keeping the virus at bay.
And 27 percent thought the increased restrictions have taken away the pleasure of visiting the High Street.
Nine in 10 business owners have introduced social distancing measures for their customers – but 49 percent admitted they were concerned about effectively managing it on their premises.
Almost six in 10 (58 percent) of those polled by WhatsApp were even worried people will avoid small businesses because it is difficult to follow social distancing rules on the premises.
It also emerged 31 percent have put the drop in customers down to the shift to digital – as more consumers buy products and services online.
However, almost half of the businesses polled said they had made better use of online tools for e-commerce to help boost their products and services because of the pandemic.
The research was carried out by WhatsApp ahead of its partnership with Watford Borough Council.
The majority (82 percent) of larger SMEs (100-248 employees) polled by WhatsApp Business have responded to the challenges by increasing their use of online tools during the pandemic.
But this dropped to just 48 percent of the smallest companies (less than 10 employees).
Improving customer communication (37 percent) topped the list of help they needed to function effectively during the pandemic, followed closely by the need for digital upskilling (33 percent) and marketing assistance (30 percent).
It is hoped the initiative in Watford will help smaller businesses with their response to the pandemic and measures introduced by the government.
The scheme has been welcomed by both the mayor of Watford Borough Council, Peter Taylor, and the Government.
Paul Scully MP, Minister for Small Business, said: “It’s great to see small businesses using innovative digital tools like WhatsApp Business to help them adjust how they engage with their customers.
“We are always keen to encourage innovative partnerships to help grow local economies, and this collaboration between WhatsApp and Watford Borough Council is a fantastic way of combining innovation, digital skills and supporting small businesses.”
Dan Lenan, WhatsApp partnerships manager, added: “It is more important than ever for us all to support local businesses as high streets all over the country struggle with the economic downturn.
“With the huge challenges presented by Coronavirus, it is vital we keep our high streets alive and thriving.
“Whether it’s helping a retailer fulfil online orders, a restaurant to become a take away, or a beauty salon to communicate social distancing rules, the WhatsApp Business App can help people steer their business through these difficult times.
“We are very happy to partner with Watford to support their business community and to show that digital tools can support their recovery.”
Key features of the WhatsApp Business App include a business profile, catalogue, quick replies and automated messages, labels to organise messages from customers and QR codes.