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Expert Blog: What things might look like when ‘non-essential’ retailers can reopen

Retail Research Associate Nelson Blackley looks at how non-essential stores may approach reopening following the easing of restrictions imposed to fight the spread of coronavirus

High street

Whatever the ‘post lockdown’ processes may be for the return of ‘non-essential’ retail agreed by the UK Government (and from the recent announcements it appears that won’t start for several weeks), it’s already clear that the key driver of consumers’ decision-making about where and when to shop in physical stores will be entirely driven by their view of what the risk to health might be.

Retailers will not only have to follow whatever specific guidelines are issued around ‘social distancing’ both outside and inside their stores, but they will also need to clearly communicate and demonstrate to consumers their absolute commitment to providing a safe environment for both store staff and customers. Retailers who are unable to do this will see customer footfall disappear and those unwilling to do this will see their brand reputation permanently damaged.

Although there may be some exceptions, for example in the garden and DIY categories, it’s hard to envisage that in the immediate ‘post lockdown’ period, many shoppers will quickly return to visiting their nearest high street, shopping centres or retail parks to browse or buy non-food products. Consumers may also look to shop more locally, thereby avoiding the need to use public transport.

However, for most, the concerns about possible risks to their health will override their desire to go shopping for anything other than food. This would mirror what has already been seen in many of those countries where ‘lockdown’ has already partially ended.

‘Social distancing’ is a real challenge for fashion retailers given the traditional layout of most fashion stores aren’t as ‘functional’ as supermarkets that often have long and relatively wide aisles. In fact, fashion stores are deliberately designed to encourage customers to spend time browsing (and with their changing rooms, to try on) clothing before purchase.

Unfortunately, this challenges the easy introduction of social distancing and so will make it difficult for fashion retailers to operate physical stores without some significant changes. For example, it is difficult to see how changing rooms could operate. A fashion retailer could perhaps look to use only one in two cubicles or one in three, but there would also have to be some sort of constant monitoring and effective cleaning regime introduced.

Strict control of the number of customers in the store at any one time will be required. Whilst this is already in operation across those ‘essential retailers’ currently open, the ‘dwell time’ in fashion stores is often greater than in non-fashion and so quite how this would work ‘post lockdown’ is more difficult to imagine. In practice, fashion retailers will probably have to reconfigure their stores in a much simpler way to enable customers to see the range of products while remaining at least two metres apart.

And would customers even be prepared to buy and take home an item of clothing that had been on display for an unknown time and inevitably touched by many people? It might be that the display stock becomes just that (one garment on display rather than a range of sizes) and after payment the customer then takes home a sealed and untouched product in their size.

Whilst that might be operationally possible (and would also create more non-display floorspace allowing staff and customers to socially distance) it also brings additional complexity and cost around the stockholding and returns processes for fashion.

The challenges around future ‘socially distanced’ high streets, shopping centres and retail parks are particularly difficult. It depends both on the footfall, the overall space available and the retail density. To make it work, these variables will need to be carefully controlled.

At present, under ‘lockdown’, there are very few retailers open in any one shopping destination, and so queues waiting outside food stores or pharmacies (because of the need to restrict the numbers shopping in the store at any one time) mostly have adequate space to safely occur.

However, when more ‘non-essential’ retailers can reopen their stores, the new issue of how to keep all those in multiple queues for different shops two metres apart suddenly arises. Because of the relatively low store density and large outside car parking space, this might be easier for retailers occupying retail parks.

On high streets and particularly in shopping centres, with lots of retail stores, this will be more problematic. At least shopping centres can (and will have to) control the total numbers of shoppers in the centre at any time. For high streets and town centres with multiple routes in and out, and often narrow pavements, unless pedestrianised, it’s an operational nightmare.

When they can reopen their stores, ‘non-essential’ retailers must learn from what the grocery multiples have already done - and I am sure this will also inform whatever guidance is published by Government. So best practise should, wherever possible, include a separate entrance and exit, some form of ‘one way system’ around the store, together with limited shopper numbers in store at any one time and clearly marked queueing channels for the tills as well as screens, shields and masks for checkout staff.

Multiple cleaning stations both at the door and inside the store equipped with hand sanitiser for staff and customers to use will become the norm at least for the immediate future, and it’s also possible some retailers may provide disposable non-medical face masks for shoppers not already wearing them.

Finally, I don’t believe things will ever return to what was previously ‘normal’ for the UK retail sector; any retail recovery, at least for ‘bricks and mortar’ stores, will be a much slower and more complicated process than we might imagine.

Find out more about Nelson Blackley's research.

Check here for the latest coronavirus advice and updates from NTU.

Published on 11 May 2020
  • Category: Research; Nottingham Business School