In just a few weeks the way we shop has changed out of all recognition. Most Londoners have now experienced a socially distanced supermarket trip with long queues outside, one-way routes along the aisles, hand sanitiser by the trolleys and perspex screens in front of cashiers. Shops – both big and small – selling essentials through lockdown have adapted swiftly in these extraordinary circumstances. However, shops selling non-essentials have faced an uncertain future.
According to the government’s roadmap document, ‘Our Plan to Rebuild’, published on May 11, the intention was to open non-essential retail outlets from June 1. Now, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed that date back a fortnight to Monday June 15. He has also provided more detailed information about what kind of businesses will be allowed to open again and when.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that any further easing of lockdown – including the reopening of shops – is contingent upon a continuing fall in the infection reproduction R rate, a decline in new cases and adequate PPE being available for staff. If these conditions are met, here’s what we know about the retail landscape after June 15.
Outdoor markets (and, for some reason car showrooms) are allowed to reopen from June 1. Presumably because they are the environments most able to impose social distancing (and who’s buying a new car right now anyway?). Some Ikeas are also planning to open on June 1.
High-street chains – including Marks & Spencer, Boots (non-pharmacy departments), John Lewis, Halfords and Greggs (hurrah!) – have confirmed that they will be reopening a significant number of stores on June 15.
According to a report in the Telegraph, Waterstones is also reopening for business and has promised that any books touched by customers will be quarantined for 72 hours, which is going to make browsing not a lot of fun.
Prior to the announcement, there had been widespread criticism of the government for failing to give the retail industry hard-and-fast dates for reopening, as well as what shops would look like once they had. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, a trade association for all British retailers, said, ‘Retailers desperately need clarity in the rules regarding when and how they can open, details that are still lacking.’ She added: ‘It is vital that the reopening of stores is based on who can do so safely, as opposed to trying to draw lines in terms of different sizes or types of shop.’ Her comments follow reports in the Times in May that small shops may be the first to reopen, with larger shopping centres following in the second phase. This now appears not to be the case, with all ‘non-essential shops’, irrespective of size, being permitted to reopen.
The BRC has come up with lots of recommendations for shops as they reopen, and they shed some light on what shopping could look like. Suggestions include having separate entrances and exits into shops, limiting the number of customers in store, putting up clear signs explaining social distancing, placing markings outside for spaced queuing, hiring additional security staff and providing cleaning stations and intense cleaning regimes. It also suggests changing the layout of shops so there is as much space as possible for social distancing and implementing one-way systems. It’s also likely that shoppers will have to greet cashiers from behind perspex screens and staff will wear gloves and masks. Changing rooms will not be available, either. One thing is certain, the daily queuing rituals are going to be with us for some time to come.
Thanks to London’s sky-high business rates many retailers already struggled to make a profit in the capital and the current climate has left the retail sector in a sorry state. Several large household-name stores – including Oasis, Warehouse and Debenhams – have already filed for administration and it’s expected more will follow. As the chancellor warns of a ‘significant recession’ on the horizon, the British Independent Retailers Association has warned one in five of its members are not planning to reopen after lockdown and the Centre of Retail Research has estimated more than 20,000 stores could close by the end of 2020.
Research by the BRC found that UK footfall decreased by nearly 85 percent in April, due to the lockdown: a record decline. According to For Helen Dickinson: ‘Many retailers will not return to normal trading for some time, even when they are allowed to reopen.’ She added: ‘Changes are requiring retailers to adapt quickly [...] Ultimately, the very nature of many retail jobs will change, with impressive customer service and the effective use of technology become[ing] even more vital.’
For industry expert Mary Portas, understanding what the new normal will be for shopping will be an exercise in trial and error. She told Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’: ‘This is really going to be about experimenting and winging it, whether you’re a chain store or an independent retailer, it’s going to be like a laboratory. There’s going to be a short-term way in which we behave and eventually we will come out of it with a new way of retailing. [Shopping] is going to change.’
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