Where next for beleaguered Rightmove?

They say timing is everything. At the end of January, I wrote a blog suggesting Rightmove needed to start making friends with its customers, (Rightmove – it’s time to do a Ryanair), I never dreamt how quickly and dramatically circumstances would conspire to demonstrate the crucial nature of that change in strategy.

It was business as usual at the beginning of the year. Mighty Rightmove began their annual price hike programme, notifying customers the length and breadth of the country how much they would be paying to advertise their properties on the portal in the next financial year. As has become the custom, numerous agents objected, were given short shrift, they put up or shut up and the world carried on turning. As ever.

Except that this year, the world was about to become a very different place.

Even before the Coronavirus storm broke, and estate agents across the UK watched on in horror as activity evaporated, the rumblings of the legions of disgruntled Rightmove customers seemed to be a little louder than normal.

At the beginning of February, a little more than a week after the lockdown in Wuhan, Rightmove boasted of their busiest ever month and saw their shares break through the £7 barrier. It seemed the juggernaut was set to roll on relentlessly. What could possibly go wrong?

Then, as the Coronavirus swiftly spread its deadly fingers across the globe, and western governments talked of lockdowns and ‘social distancing’, fear and uncertainty gripped the housing market. The bright outlook heralded by so many in January had suddenly clouded over and viewings and new instructions slowed to a trickle – with the spectre of much worse to come.

Along with all the other suppliers to the industry, Rightmove came under severe pressure to do something to help its hard-pressed customers. Their initial response to the crisis was to offer their agents the ‘good news’ that – they were going to suspend this year’s rate increase! As their income dwindled, the agents could at least relax in the knowledge that Rightmove’s generous gesture would mean they could enjoy the same prices they’d struggled to pay the previous year.

At the end of the February, Rightmove announced their annual results. And glittering results they were too. Revenue and profit both up by around 8%, operating profit up to a whopping £213m and monthly ARPA (that crucial measure of Average Revenue Per Advertiser) up to an eye-watering £1,088, around three times that of its biggest competitors.

However, Rightmove also announced a fall in agent numbers of around a thousand and a fall in leads of around 4%. They shrugged this off as being “mainly low-stock agency branches”, and the drop in their core customer base was offset by signing up more developers – almost 3,500 new homes developments were now listed on the site.

CEO Peter Brooks-Johnson’s mention of his firm’s ‘culture of relentlessness’ doubtless struck a chord with many of the agents struggling to keep their heads above water.

Some City analysts thought this was all splendid news; while The Times was writing about agents rejecting Rightmove fee increases in greater numbers than ever before, William Packer of Exane BNP Paribas (we’ll hear more from him later), opined that Rightmove is still a ‘must-have’ for agents and set a share price target of 680p.

As we moved into March, the voices calling for a payment holiday gathered strength. Rightmove’s offer of a price freeze was obviously not going to cut it. Social media was full of comments from firms of every shape and size. Calls for a boycott gathered strength and popular support, something needed to be done.

It was clear for all to see that feelings were running high. In March, the popular website, Property Industry Eye, published part of the prop-tech strategist Mike DelPrete’s excellent Rightmove article, including his assertion that Rightmove did not appear to be at risk of losing its market dominance. Over 50 agents posted comments along the lines of “Watch this space!”.

The pressure mounted, and finally, on March 18th, with breath-taking hubris, Rightmove announced their solution – a deferred payment scheme. It came with a whole raft of strings attached and wouldn’t be effective until May. They were offering some lucky customers the chance to defer up to £275 a month, for six months, with the money to be repaid over the following three months. Whoop-de-doo!

The entire property market was screeching to a grinding halt, agents were wondering whether they’d still be in business in three months’ time and the Government was about to bring the shutters down on transactions full stop. And this was the best they were prepared to offer.

It caused uproar.

The post on Property Industry Eye was treated with derision, it broke all records for reader comments. Over 200 agents queued up to vent their spleen. One commented about Rightmove’s “audacity, arrogance and sheer ignorance”. Rob Sargent, the respected CEO of Acorn Group, London’s largest independent multi-brand estate agency, said they were “out of touch with reality” and promptly launched a website called ‘SayNoToRightmove.co.uk’ a couple of days later. Even their founder, Harry Hill, urged the Rightmove board to reconsider. Not everyone was critical though, you’ll remember that Exane analyst, William Packer; he told investors the deferred payment scheme was a sensible one – that aged well!

Meanwhile, analysts at Shore Capital finally stated what we’d all been thinking. Rightmove’s exponential growth relies on extracting ever more income from the same, and possibly shrinking group of customers. Even in good times this was likely to start proving tricky – with Covid 19 raging across the country, it was going to be impossible. Rightmove’s share price fell to 470p.

Customers were quitting the portal in worrying numbers. SayNoToRightmove.co.uk was attracting agents in their hundreds, while the press were highly critical of this disastrous strategy and the hapless Rightmove board. Two days after revealing their deferred payment plan, Rightmove undertook one of the great reverse ferrets of the decade. They apologised about their misjudged scheme and, instead, announced a 75% reduction in their charges to customers for four months, hopefully, enough to see them through the worst.

With the exception of the ever-supportive William Packer, who applauded the move, the analysts, the industry and the City felt the damage had already been done. Despite offering their customers a whopping £65m helping hand, they enjoyed scant credit. Investment banker, Jefferies, said the ill-fated deferred payments plan had caused lasting damage and it was only after it was universally pilloried by agents that Rightmove undertook their embarrassing u-turn. They warned that this could open the floodgates to collective action by agents.

Rob Sargent, who by now had over a thousand agents on his SayNoToRightmove website, representing around two thousand branch offices, wrote an open letter to Peter Brooks-Johnson thanking him for the substantial price reduction but demanding a choice between that and a three-month payment holiday. And finally, helpfully, those good folk at Zoopla weighed in with an offer of nine months’ worth of free listings for any agent leaving Rightmove and signing up to their portal for at least 18 months. Rightmove will have had better weeks.

An uneasy silence now exists. As far as I know, Rightmove hasn’t responded to Rob Sargent’s request for a payment holiday option and they must be hoping that their significant, but belated, gesture has satisfied their critics and rebuilt their relationship with their customers. But that is entirely the point I was making in my ‘Ryanair’ piece. There is no relationship to rebuild. Years of ‘take it or leave it’ arbitrary price increases, the arrogance that comes with such a dominant market position and an intransigence that has become almost legendary, have combined to erode any goodwill that might have existed in the vast majority of their customer base.

Rightmove cannot be surprised that there is little emotional support for them amongst the estate agents and developers. Prior to the Coronavirus crisis, their market position looked unassailable. Their January traffic broke all records, over 152 million visits – compare that to OnTheMarket’s 30 million. They called the shots and showed little concern about the importance of the seller/buyer relationship.

Who on earth could have predicted what was about to happen; the speed and the catastrophic effects of this terrible virus? The havoc it’s wreaked in western economies and the complete disruption of the status quo. It’s at times like this you need friends. Times when you are unable to leverage your market domination. That’s when you need the loyalty of your customers and that’s when you realise delivering them a ‘like it or lump it’ ultimatum will inevitably result in a ‘lump it’ response at their very first opportunity. Rightmove’s aura of invincibility has been significantly damaged, this is truly a very dangerous time for the brand.

It needn’t end in disaster. Rightmove still has the critical mass and market reach that no other portal can offer. It isn’t all about price – there are any number of existing and about-to-exist property portals, like Residential People, Homesearch and Twindig, offering free listings to agents now and forever. But free listings are only any good if enough of the right people are reading them.

Rightmove is still the brand leader, by a street – excuse the pun. But they need to heed the wise advice of the excellent Mike DelPrete, “Rightmove has saturated the market”, he says, “the only way to increase revenues in the agency listing business is by raising prices. However, Rightmove’s ability to raise prices is diminishing. Average revenue per advertiser growth, continues to decline year after year.” Mike has the answer, it’s time for Rightmove to diversify. And he offers up the example of Zillow in the US to perfectly demonstrate his point.

By securing other income streams, on the back of their huge, in-market, audience, Rightmove can grow without constantly charging their customers more in real terms for what is, essentially, the same product. This virus won’t be around for ever, and there’s still time.

Back in January, Covid 19 was nothing more than a little-known virus, in a far-flung part of the world, that didn’t really affect our day to day life here in Europe. I certainly had no notion of what was around the corner, few people did; my advice to Rightmove then was based on them having a few years to change course. I suggested;

It’s time for Rightmove to engage with their customers, to listen; genuinely listen, rather than act out some management-speak cliché. To put it simply, if we’re dealing in clichés, Rightmove needs to start planning a coronation, it’s time to make the Customer King.

Ryanair made headlines by openly declaring the war against their customers was over, a little bit of short-term pain, for substantial long-term gain. It’s time for Rightmove to follow suit.

I still hold with that advice, who knows, perhaps they’ll listen now.

Matt Fleming is a Residential Property Consultant advising marketing agencies and housebuilders direct. He has specialised in residential property for over 35 years and, during that time, has worked with most of the UK’s top 20 developers. The thoughts and sentiments in this article are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the businesses he works with.