TV presenter Mary Portas believes that Britain’s high streets have been subjected to decades of erosion, neglect and mismanagement, which has led them to the point of extinction, but she’s overlooking a very simple truth.

British consumers habits have changed. The UK has migrated online. To coax local shoppers out from behind their computer screens and back into high street stores British businesses need to reach customers online.

Online advertising should be the answer, but a lack of systems that work have constrained widespread online ad adoption amongst Britain’s smaller, local businesses.

The UK’s high streets have certainly had a tough old time in recent years, with more than 11% of town centre shops currently standing empty. In 2011, Portas was made the Government’s High Street Tsar, charged with injecting life back into Britain’s ailing high streets.

A new round of Government funding in July has seen 15 towns join the 12 that were recently announced as ‘Portas Pilots’, the first beneficiaries of the Queen of Shops’ plans to bring the beating heart of Britain’s high streets back to life.

While these towns will receive mentoring, advice and aid, not to mention £100,000 to spend revamping their most visible retail strip, the other 400 towns that applied for the scheme have so far been left to fend for themselves.

Online provides a cost-effective way for businesses in those towns left out of the Portas scheme to target local customers, but in tough economic times businesses trying to drive customers back into the high street need some guarantees.

Recent figures from the OECD revealed that Britain is the biggest online shopping nation in the world.

Yet, in spite of this trend, over 60% of the UK’s small businesses, which make up 95% of UK businesses, account for nearly a fifth of the national economy and turn over an aggregate of more than £613bn each year, are failing to use online advertising to reach customers.

British small businesses are nervous about online ad services, and with good reason. Far too many ad services have failed to provide the assurances, flexibility and cost-effectiveness that smaller businesses need.

Many small businesses have been burned by ad campaigns from large search providers that simply haven’t worked. Instead, small businesses need help to adapt to the new online environment.

The top five mental barriers we hear from small UK businesses, and that make them reticent to advertise online are:

We’re not an e-commerce company

It’s a misconception that online ads are exclusively for online services. In fact, while a website helps, ads don’t have to have an online destination. We ran a rich media campaign for EA Games on with no online destination and no call to action – the ad simply introduced a new video game and allowed customers to explore some of the key features.

On the day of the game’s release in store sales went through the roof, with 2m copies sold within the first week. It doesn’t just work for big brands though.

Businesses such as cafes, bars and boutique shops can target local customers with online ads, and driving the online community to their premises to make offline purchases.

Online ads don’t work, and are a waste of money

Times are tight, and according to the Prime Minister they’re going to remain tight for the foreseeable future. Keeping costs down is, of course, a concern for businesses across the country, but particularly for Britain’s smaller businesses.

When trying online advertising with large search providers smaller businesses have found that their ads are being clicked by the wrong people, squandering the budget they’ve put into them.

In tough times it’s essential that smaller businesses can make their use of online ads as targeted and cost-effective as possible. Online ad services must target local audiences, provide guarantees and deliver value for money clicks.

It’s not going to be seen by the right people 

Businesses need to be assured that their ads will be seen by local customers. Online ad services should be able to guarantee thousands of local ad views each month.  

Those views should be generated through a wide, quality network of local publishers, but should also be delivered through social networks like Facebook.

Even if it does work, we won’t understand how 

Most small, local and micro businesses don’t have time to worry about monitoring online ad performance, examining metrics or any of the other stuff a larger company’s marketing department would take care of.

But they do need to know their ads are working. Online ad services must cut out the hassle and jargon, so that local businesses can get on with serving customers.

Simple monitoring reports with the flexibility to provide more complex data upon request enable smaller businesses to let the ad system do the work for them.

We don’t even have a website 

While online ads are by no means exclusively for online services, and don’t necessarily even require an online destination, a website really does help.

Local businesses don’t necessarily have the time or the budget to create an expansive, involving website, but they don’t necessarily need so much detail either. A simple, engaging landing page for customers that gives them basics of products, offers and where to find the store often does the job.

Britain is migrating online, and it’s important for businesses, however small, to reach out to customers in these environments. The internet can help the high street in a number of ways, and those businesses which neglect the web are missing out on potential customers. 

Those towns that missed out on the Portas Pilots scheme should be using cost-effective online advertising to target local customers to get them out from behind their computers and back into Britain’s local retail centres.

Sean Riley

Published 26 September, 2012 by Sean Riley

Sean Riley is CEO at Ad Dynamo and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (6)

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Laura Daly

Couldn't agree more.
This is area in which indie. Bridal shops have been excelling for the past few years, other small retail shops should have a look at what we do, as its a huge part of how we drive business to our door.
Social media is also fast cheap and easy to use!

almost 6 years ago



Definitely agree. If individual shops can't afford their own websites they could also pull together to create a high street website as a destination for online ads. Pooled funding for one website could be flexible - Content changing to match the campaign (maybe the shop with that week's best offer). Locally targeted with local offers and reasons to leave their computer screens and walk to the shops.

almost 6 years ago


Peter Kay

Customers are walking around with the internet in their pockets, it is bound to have a massive impact on their buying habits.

I often felt that there is a clear correlation between the lack of digital literacy on the high street and the situation it is currently facing.

almost 6 years ago

James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

Interesting post Sean. This is something I have a little bit of an interest in, as I think the decline of the high street and the rise of online shopping is far too much of a coincidence to ignore, as you’ve mentioned. That said, there must be ways for the two to work in harmony. I hear a lot about clicks and bricks, and I think the advent of mobile phone payment as well as mobile vouchers and codes could significantly help push people back into high street stores. Alternatively, the high street needs to offer an experience that you simply can’t get online – again this is something I have seen with certain retailers looking to go that little bit further to enhance the ‘customer experience’.

almost 6 years ago

Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman, Director at the eConsultant

Just downloaded the Econsultancy guide on 'How the Internet can save the High Street' (here -

I agree with your writers Sean Riley and Graham Charlton's sentiments: in her major report (presumably at some considerable cost), how did Mary Portas come to neglect to consider how best to join up online and offline channels?

If you're trying to save the high street, you shouldn't neglect shoppers / footfall that digital could help drive into stores.

That's a pretty bad error by Ms Portas.

almost 6 years ago

Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman, Director at the eConsultant

And I should have added, that's a pretty bad error by those in Government who should have had their eye on the ball to ensure taxpayers money was properly spent.

almost 6 years ago

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