Today, Wednesday 2 December 2020, is likely to be like no other for retail.
A month after many retailers were obliged to close at the very moment they would be expecting to enjoy their busiest time of year, and with just three weeks to go before the big day — Christmas — itself, they are finally allowed to reopen.
After what has been (let’s face it) our collective annus horribilis, those retailers will no doubt be banking on great Christmas trading to try to make up for it. And the government has just given them a fillip by announcing that they can trade right round the clock if they wish.
The pent-up demand is palpable. While online shopping provides a welcome relief for customers (non-grocery retail is, after all, now at an astonishing 40 per cent of total sales), it alone cannot hope to fulfil consumer demand this Christmas.
News that there could be a supply issue caused by Chinese factories running at maximum capacity and backlogs at our ports all adds up to what could be a tsunami of consumer demand hitting our high streets this week.
Just think, the new evening out: Scotch egg and salad down the local, followed by hitting the shops until midnight.
Longer opening hours are of course designed to spread the load and keep shops from becoming overcrowded. But that strategy takes no account of the already stressed retail workers who will have to staff the stores 24 hours a day.
Images of long Covid queues and crowded shopping centres, with shoppers desperate to grab their stocking fillers, threaten to dominate the headlines until Christmas. Expect also the likely news of a third wave come January. It’s a bleak midwinter forecast.
But there could be an alternative. After all, isn’t just turning up uninvited at a store, expecting to be served, so pre-pandemic? Could it be that booking an appointment, where we’ll know for sure that we are guaranteed to be served in a stress-free environment, represents the new retail normal?
Pre-booking has become commonplace in other sectors like hospitality. Indeed, it has been the norm in luxury retail for many years. So why not go mainstream?
Hayley-Jayne Cone, chief customer officer at experiential relationship management company JRNI, certainly thought so when I caught up with her this week.
“While the numbers show that many presents have been bought online during lockdown, there are still very many items that shoppers prefer to shop in person for,” she told me.
“Blending options like shopping by appointment and virtual queuing slots, along with omnichannel models like kerbside pickups will ensure shoppers and staff enjoy a safe, smooth experience in the run-up to Christmas.”
Booking a 3am slot might seem outside the box for all but a few shopping insomniacs. But we cannot deny that things are changing — in every area of life. Covid anxiety looks set to alter the very nature of the store and the high street we are all so familiar with. If we can cut the Christmas queues, retail will never be the same again.
Main image credit: Getty