TWO thirds of businesses have seen the number of shoppers fall since lockdown, according to research.
A survey of more than 750 bricks and mortar companies found 43% felt the drop in footfall was down to an unease over social distancing and keeping the virus at bay.
And 27% thought the increased restrictions have taken away the pleasure of visiting the high street.
Nine in ten business owners have introduced social distancing measures for their customers – but 49% admitted they were concerned about effectively managing it on their premises.
Almost six in ten (58%) 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% have put the drop in customers down to the shift to digital – as more consumers buy products and services online.
But 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 after it partnered with a British town to create the UK’s first "WhatsApp High Street" as part of its initiative to help small and medium-sized businesses improve their communication with customers and fellow traders.
Twelve businesses on Market Street in Watford, Hertfordshire, 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.
It has been designed to help businesses communicate with customers on issues such as social distancing in small premises, new opening hours, stock issues, table reservations or reduced menus.
Among the firms taking part in the pilot scheme is Underground Tattoo, a local tattoo parlour, which also offers piercings.
Jamie, who only gave his first name and is 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 majority (82%) of larger SMEs (100 to 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% of the smallest companies (less than ten employees).
When asked what type of help they needed for their business to function effectively during the pandemic, help with improving customer communication (37%) topped the list, followed closely by the need for digital upskilling (33%) and marketing assistance (30%).
It's 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.
Minister for small business Paul Scully said: “It’s great to see small businesses using innovative digital tools such as 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: “As high streets all over the country struggle with the economic downturn and with the huge challenges presented by coronavirus, it is more important than ever for us all to support local businesses and 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.
Non-essential shops were allowed to reopen on June 15, including charity and betting shops.
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