UK’s first WhatsApp High Street created in bid to bring SMEs online

By Lucy Ingham

Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp has partnered with Watford Borough Council to create the first “WhatsApp High Street” to help small businesses connect to customers.

Through the initiative, Watford-based small businesses will provided with free digital tools from WhatsApp and access to the WhatsApp Business app. It is hoped that this will enable them to easily respond to customer questions, such as those related to opening times and social distancing measures, as well as use the platform as a digital storefront to showcase their products and services.

Features available through WhatsApp Business include a profile, catalogue, templated responses to standard questions and a variety of features to organise communications.

The WhatsApp High Street initiative has initially been launched as a pilot programme on Watford’s Market Street, which is known for its independent shops and outlets, with 12 small businesses participating. Other businesses are being encouraged to join the initiative, with WhatsApp keeping its free training open for further participants in Watford.

Among those who have joined the scheme so far is Underground Tattoo, which represents a type of small business where high levels of customer communication is essential.

“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,” explained Jamie Kelly, manager of Underground Tattoo.

“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.”

WhatsApp High Street initiative targets hard-hit small businesses

At the core of the partnership is a desire to help support the myriad of bricks and mortar small businesses that have been severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

65% of such businesses report a drop in footfall since the start of the pandemic, according to a survey by YouGov on behalf of WhatsApp.

For many businesses, the solution has been digital, with 82% of larger small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) embracing digital tools. However, this has been far more challenging for smaller companies, with only 48% of SMEs with less than 10 employees doing the same.

It is hoped this initiative can help such companies bridge the digital divide and so bring back lost business.

“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,” said Dan Lenan, partnerships manager at WhatsApp.

“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.”

This is a view echoed by Watford Borough Council.

“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,” said Peter Taylor, mayor of Watford.

“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.”

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