Nicholas Carroll
Associate Director - Retail, Nicholas Carroll has a particular flare for the grocery industry but analyses and writes in-depth reports on a range of UK and European retail markets.

Non-essential retail stores in England can reopen for the first time today (15 June 2020) after a three-month lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Non-essential retailers in Northern Ireland reopened last week, but Wales and Scotland continue to remain in lockdown for the time being.

For a large proportion of the retail sector, today is the day they have been waiting for – when the shutters can be lifted and the slow march back to normality can resume. However, the ‘next normal’ won’t look the same for a while. Many will have a new look to comply with strict safety measures. Retailers are required to introduce plastic screens at the tills and floor markings to keep shoppers two metres apart. 

Other measures will include pleas not to touch items unless customers intend to purchase them and decontaminating shopping baskets after each use. In most clothes shops, fitting rooms will be closed, while some jewellers are introducing ultraviolet boxes that can decontaminate items in minutes. 

What impact will these safety measures and three months of closure have on retailing?

Footfall will not be back to ‘normal’

Although retail stores are now allowed to re-open, footfall will not be ‘normal’ by any stretch of the imagination. Mintel’s latest tracker data shows that almost half of consumers in the UK are still limiting their time in-store, whilst over half are still worried/extremely worried about contracting the virus. Indeed, we would expect footfall in the initial week/weekend of opening to be stronger than where it will eventually see it settle into.

Although we can expect many pictures and videos in the media this week of long queues and busy stores, this will only reflect the initial excitement of consumers visiting their favourite stores for the first time after three months and this isn’t likely to last.

Customers queuing in masks in front of the Nike store on Oxford Street

Source: Twitter @dandoll

A social distanced shopping experience

The initial excitement about the return of shopping will likely give way to the reality of the more ‘friction-full’ social distanced shopping experience. Minimising this friction is crucial for the sector, it is not about doing the minimum required to open – it is about going the extra mile to ensure customers feel confident about visiting and spending time in-store. 

Source: Getty Images

Indeed what is key in the next stage is being clear and communicative with customers to mitigate the hit to footfall. Whilst Mintel research shows that nearly a fifth of consumers are looking forward to a day out shopping, that will not be done if customers do not feel safe to do so. The baseline for retailers is to follow government guidelines, however, what is crucial is that they invest in communicating the changes they have made to customers. We know footfall will be significantly down on ‘normal’ levels, but the retail sector does not need to further drive this down by the poor following of the regulations or mixed messages about what is required from customers in-store.

Equally, whilst it’s positive that the likes of Primark are reopening their entire store network, a number of other anchor tenants are either phasing their re-opening and this will again add a natural staggering to the return to physical shopping locations. So, whilst this week should be one of celebration for retail, it is also just the first step on the recovery within the physical sector.