After more than two months of enforced closure during the UK coronavirus lockdown, retailers across England are preparing to potentially reopen to shoppers from 1 June.
The high street will look different when retailers are allowed to open their doors. Social distancing signage will be in place, shop assistants will wear masks and a number of stores will not reopen after the coronavirus crisis proved to be a nail in the coffin for some already struggling retailers.
Meanwhile, the risk of coronavirus will remain and, while lockdown has been tough, many consumers are nervous about returning to a more normal reality.
As well as fears of catching or spreading the virus, shoppers are also likely to be concerned about their financial situation as the UK’s lockdown ravaged the economy.
So, the question facing retailers now is how to encourage shoppers back into stores when the lockdown is lifted.
Safety is key
First and foremost, retailers have to create a safe shopping environment, says Retail Economics chief executive Richard Lim.
“Consumers are going to remain nervous and anxious about returning to store environments,” Lim says.
He adds: “I think the primary concern for consumers is going to be safety and so retailers that really provide safe environments… and really address some of those concerns, they might be able to provide a point of difference from competitors.
“Retailers that get this right could have a competitive edge.”
All major retailers are preparing to reopen shops with social distancing measures and thorough cleaning regimes in place. But they all have different strengths and weaknesses to contend with.
Marks & Spencer says it will learn from its food business, which has remained open throughout the crisis, to safely reopen its clothing departments.
M&S stores that sell both clothing and food are led by a single manager meaning “they already have a brilliant working knowledge of the necessary hygiene measures, how to manage social distancing and the flow of our customers in and out of their store”, a spokesperson said.
Waterstones will reportedly quarantine books that have been touched by customers before putting them back on the shelves.
But even after the safety measures are in place it will be a challenge to get customers in through the door.
Shoppers may be penny-pinching, amid an economy battered by lockdown. UK households remained pessimistic about job security in May, and wage growth is set to slow as the UK faces recession.
Footfall in shopping destinations is expected to take a while to return as offices remain closed and people are urged against using public transport.
Some consumers will have grown more comfortable with online shopping, and fail to see the attraction of a day out shopping without stopping for coffee or lunch.
Online shopping skyrocketed to comprise a record 30.7 per cent of all sales in April, according to official data, while overall retail sales slumped 18 per cent last month.
Discounting is one way to tempt customers into a store. However, retailers must walk the fine line between attracting shoppers and maintaining social distancing measures after the lockdown.
The New West End Company recommends that sales and promotions are restricted to online to avoid drumming up huge crowds.
But Retail Economics’ Lim predicts that many retailers will fall back on aggressive discounting to stimulate demand.
“I don’t think the core principles will go away, and that is all around value for money…and at this point in time, safety,” he says.
Good causes to generate goodwill
However, some firms are hoping that their actions during the pandemic will stand them in good stead when shoppers are able to return.
Kurt Geiger, which has launched initiatives such as shoe donations for NHS staff and a 50 per cent discount for emergency workers during the crisis, has developed its “We Are One” range to support the health service.
The retailer is aiming to raise £1m for the NHS through the sale of its charity bag, and all of the first 20 to 30 stores to reopen will feature “We Are One” window displays.
Consumers will want to “give back, get involved in it and feel part of something” when the lockdown lifts, Kurt Geiger chief executive Neil Clifford tells City A.M.
“Customers will remember who did good [during the crisis] and who did not so good,” he says.
The discount for emergency workers has already proved successful, and will continue until at least the end of the year. Online sales are up 70 per cent compared to last year, with 40 per cent using the so-called blue light discount scheme. Many of them are new Kurt Geiger customers, Clifford says.
London jewellery brand Astrid & Miyu, which is hoping to open at least one of its boutiques in June, is also hopeful that its social conscience will resonate with its millennial customer base.
“The way people run businesses will change. People are looking for a sense of purpose in uncertain times, they are looking for that guidance and they want to give back,” says founder Connie Nam.
Attracting footfall after lockdown
Retail footfall plummeted when the government imposed lockdown restrictions in March. Footfall dived 80.1 per cent in the four weeks from 5 April to 2 May, the biggest drop on record. Encouragingly, retail footfall increased 11 per cent last week.
Shopping destinations, for example the West End, could find visitors are slow to return as international tourists are kept away and Londoners are urged to avoid public transport and continue to work from home.
“We are testing all different types of store, we will open shopping centres, such as Westfield, and central London locations like Covent Garden,” Kurt Geiger’s Clifford says.
“But we will also open the local stores, like Portobello and Hampstead where people are still working from home and might be wary about using public transport.”
However, the shoe retailer is expecting sales to be 50 per cent to 60 per cent down compared to last year.
For smaller retailers like independent perfume brand Ormonde Jayne, the footfall created by bigger brands nearby is crucial to their reopening plans.
Ormonde Jayne founder Linda Pilkington says she cannot open her boutique in Old Bond Street’s Royal Arcade until the big luxury brands on Bond Street welcome customers back.
The area has been “spookily quiet”, she says. “I don’t think we will see the levels we are used to for a long time”.
The shop assistant will see you now
Several brands will rely on appointment systems or using their stores as a showroom for click and collect deliveries, such as Watches of Switzerland and jeweller Astrid & Miyu.
Watches of Switzerland chief executive Brian Duffy says that although casual browsing traffic will be lower, the conversion rate into sales is expected to be higher.
“If you wanted a Cartier or Rolex in March when the shutters came down, you probably still want it now,” he tells City A.M.
Although he adds: “We are selling luxury items and we don’t want our environments to feel like a waiting room in an A&E environment.”
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for retailers reopening after lockdown.
A retailer’s target customer base, its store locations and sizes, the type of product it sells and its ability to adapt to new safety measures and technology will all play a part in how successful it is in the uncertain retail landscape after lockdown is lifted.
Retail Economics’ Lim says: “We are on a journey here and it is going to take quite a while. There are going to be bumps in the road.”