‘How you can have a shopping experience without touching anything is difficult to imagine,’ says Julia Jeuvell, who owns stationery shop Choosing Keeping in Covent Garden. After being shuttered since March, shops selling non-essentials have been given the green light to reopen, but they’ll be rolling up their shutters in an alien, socially distanced world. There’ll be no touching, no trying on and no contact – it’s a world that, just three months ago, would have been totally incomprehensible.
As part of phase two of the government’s roadmap document Our Plan to Rebuild, outdoor markets (and, er, car showrooms) are allowed to reopen this week, while non-essential shops, from high-street chains to independent boutiques, can reopen from Monday June 15. However, things will look very different from the last time we indulged in a bit of retail therapy. Just as we’ve become accustomed to socially distanced supermarket trips, non-essential shopping is set to change out of all recognition, and some of those changes are here to stay, posing huge questions about the future of our towns and cities.
To help shops reopen safely, the government has developed a series of new Covid-guidelines. Any shop ready to open up will be asked to display a blue-and-white poster in its window saying it has ‘complied with the government’s guidance on managing the risk of Covid-19’. But what does this ‘guidance’ look like in practice?
‘Lots of queuing,’ says Kyle Monk, who is head of retail insights and analytics at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which has been studying how other countries coming out of lockdown, such as Germany and Austria, have managed the reopening of non-essential shops. ‘It looks like we’re going to have a phase of social distancing lite. We’re going to have queues to stores and limits on the number of customers entering. You’re likely to see hand-sanitising stations on entry, different kinds of employees managing people as opposed to selling stuff and more plexiglass at the tills. There’ll also be a rise in contactless payments, which retailers will have to adapt to. There are also lots of tricky questions around fashion, because changing rooms will be closed and returns will have to be quarantined for 72 hours.’
For larger stores and chains, technology is also set to play a big part in the new-look shopping experience. ‘We’ve seen all sorts of crazy things being used, like fogging machines that mist and clean everything when a store closes,’ says Monk. ‘Some large retailers are using devices that will determine the number of people in a store at a given time and potentially broadcast this online to show the peaks and troughs, so people can make an informed decision about when to visit.’
Libreria bookshop in Brick Lane is one of many shops looking at the changes that supermarkets have made to inform the social distancing in its shop. ‘We’ll be adopting the same systems Tesco have been using,’ says bookshop manager Lloyd Sowerbutts. ‘We‘re introducing a one-way system, so as soon as customers walk in they’ll see lines marking two-metres distance and we’ll reduce the capacity of the shop to six at a time. We’ll also do a more humanised click-and-collect service. Part of the experience is being able to pick things up and browse, so we’ll have high-strength sanitiser at the door and politely ask people to use it when they enter. We’ll try to respect the customer experience as much as possible.’
Implementing the new safety guidelines while trying to keep the experiential side of shopping intact is also essential for small artisan stationery shop Choosing Keeping, famous for its beautiful displays of notebooks and wrapping paper. ‘We are going to ask people to wear masks to enter our shop,’ says owner Jeuvell. ‘We will be keeping people socially distanced and ask people to hand-sanitise at the door. If there’s a glut of people entering the shop we may impose a time limit. For people who want to touch and test out items like fountain pens, we’ll be disinfecting them and quarantining stock. We’ll also have less things on show to keep the space clean. We hope we’ll strike a happy medium where people feel safe without completely damaging the experience.’
Local authorities will also play a huge part in the reopening of the high street by making sure there is enough room for people to queue and the streets feel clean and safe. ‘Local authorities need to be very proactive,’ says Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira). ‘At the moment there are only a few shops open and small numbers of queues. When things open with a big bang on June 15, large and small and queues will follow and I think there will be contention on pavements, which will be a problem if local authorities aren’t prepared to help out.’
Westminster City Council has been one of the most vocal local authorities on how it will help the West End reopen for business. In a document named the West End Reopening, plans are set out for how New West End Company, an organisation representing retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers across Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street, will work with the council to deep-clean streets, install cleansing stations throughout the district, promote social distancing and create additional bike parking capacity. However, it is one of only a small number of local councils to unveil detailed plans about how it will manage public space as shops reopen.
‘There is a danger that shopping becomes a very functional, less enjoyable experience,’ says Goodacre. ‘If people find there’s no pleasure to be had going out and queuing, especially in wet weather, there is a greater chance shopping will move online.’
The death of the high street has been a well-documented phenomenon for years, and those already concerned about London’s sky-high business rates will have huge questions about the future of retail in the capital as the chancellor warns of a ‘significant recession’ on the horizon. After just two months of lockdown, household names in retail – including Oasis, Warehouse, Debenhams, Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley – have already filed for administration. Worryingly, Bira warned at the beginning of the crisis that one in five of its members are not planning to reopen after lockdown, and the Centre for Retail Research has estimated that more than 20,000 stores could close by the end of 2020.
‘I think a lot of shops will reopen,’ says Goodacre. ‘But if you’ve got limited capacity coming into your shop, if you‘re facing social distancing and lower footfall, there is a real risk for businesses going through this. Sadly, you may see more empty units on the high street.’
‘It’s a really hard time to be a bricks and mortar retailer,’ says Jeuvell from Choosing Keeping. ‘It’s been really stressful not knowing what the future will be and what kind of footfall we can expect. There’s also a reluctance from landlords and the government to understand that the high street real estate market is totally collapsing. Retail is a cultural good, independent shops give our high streets character and stock craftsmanship that is part of our cultural heritage. It’s underappreciated in the UK and has not been protected sufficiently. Landlords do not always understand the financial weight of being an independent business in central London.’
Another cause for concern is the phenomenal increase in online shopping since lockdown began. ‘I listened with interest to retailers open in Europe’ says Goodacre. ‘They said they saw a spike in online sales during lockdown and as shops have reopened they’ve not seen these sales decline, which is interesting. Some of the habits that have developed during lockdown are here to stay. Shopping was changing anyway, but I think Covid has accelerated five years of change into five months. So in August, we may end up where we should have been in August 2025 in terms of online shopping.’
The concentrated rise in online shopping also poses massive uncertainty about the future of the high street. ‘I think coming out of this the way we shop will change,’ says Monk from the BRC. ‘People working from home will be one of the biggest shifts. There’s increasing stories of companies with thousands of employees, such as Facebook just off Oxford Street, saying their staff can now work from home. That’s going to affect the footfall in town centres and how they work. You might see brands moving out towards more residential areas. It’s definitely going to change things.’
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Over the years, continued hikes of London’s business rates have been crippling all kinds of businesses in the capital. In response to the current crisis, the government has reduced businesses rates bills this financial year, protected shops from aggressive rent collection and announced its revaluation of business rates will no longer take place in 2021. It’s this landscape that could, in fact, pave the way for a total overhaul in how landlords operate.
‘The BRC has been saying all along that the system hasn’t been set up right,’ says Monk. ‘For 70 years now rent reviews have constantly gone up and it’s reached breaking point. Rents were unsustainable and business rates were going up every year meaning the cost of operating on the high street is prohibitively high. After this, we very much hope they won’t go back to the way they were, because it’s unrealistic. It feels like a conversation has started now that might allow landlords to move to a different profit model. Things were broken before. This might be the start of the change we actually need.’
For Libreria, the crisis has also illuminated how much people care about independent businesses. ‘A lot of people are looking to shop locally,’ says Sowerbutts. ‘They know Amazon is there lurking in the background but they still want to support independents that give the city its cultural heft. Our subscription service has grown since lockdown and we’ve invited people to contact us directly through Twitter and Instagram for recommended reading. It’s given me the opportunity to really get to know our customers and recommend books to them they may not have picked while just casually browsing in the shop. I feel like I’ve built a firmer foundation with a lot of our customers. Now, I just want to meet them and crack open a socially distanced beer together.’
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