Covid-19: Stores reopen today – industry reacts

The government is allowing non-essential shops in England to reopen from today, as long as they complete mandatory risk assessments. It is the day retail has been waiting for after 11 weeks of enforced closure to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Essential Retail shares industry reaction from retailers, analysts and consultants.

Anita Balchandani, partner and UK Ireland head of fashion and luxury at McKinsey & Company, predicts the acceleration of technology to make shopping fast, efficient and streamlined.

“We’re seeing from the experience in China and Germany that there is a consumer appetite to go back to shopping in a physical environment. But the pattern has changed, we’re seeing less in high-footfall traffic locations, less indoor closed malls, and much more in open high streets and local areas as well. Will there be queues? It really depends on the brand proposition – we all saw what happened when Ikea opened!

“Additionally, any technologies that make the shopping trip fast, efficient and streamlined – like contactless, self-checkout – were already on a growing trajectory in the UK. If anything we will see this accelerate. Where technology could be very exciting, is if the try-on room is out of action, we might see technology to allow shoppers to try on clothes virtually. But everything we’ve seen around shopping experiences, there is a huge appetite for anything making the shopping experience, faster, smoother and contactless.”

Ken Daly, CEO of JML, thinks footfall will be low, but those who step into a store will spend more money.

“From a business perspective, retailers and suppliers are desperate to have stores open, of course, but you have to balance that against the scientific advice. Many other countries have opened up retail and are not seeing a big resurgence in infection, so it does look like the right time for the UK.

“But I don’t think customers will flock back to the high street, I think there will be a gradual return, people will do one tentative visit and see what it’s like. We’ll see slow recovery of footfall, but when people do go in stores they will spend more – if you are risking your life to go into a shop, you may as well spend a lot of money!

“Since lockdown, our online business has trebled in size, we’ve taken a leap forward and it would be great if retail comes back and we maintain online sales, but that probably won’t happen. However, a lot of retailers have been ordering ahead of next week to stock up, but the next question is will it sell through at the point of sale? We will watch the ePos data very closely.”

Mark O’Hanlon, MD of Kurt Salmon, part of Accenture Strategy, advises retailers to ensure they have product availability for customers who want to shop in store.

“As stores begin to reopen, not only should retailers assess the format and layout of their stores to fit our new reality, but more importantly they must tackle the issue of consumer confidence to return to bricks & mortar stores. This may be through creating a safe and secure shopping environment, by harnessing digital tools to ensure a seamless shopping experience, such as technology that helps customers find the products they’re looking for. However, an essential part of confidence will be ensuring the product is available when the customer eventually visits the store.”

Darren Williams, MD at Williams Harding Consulting and former country director at T2, tells retailers not to add to customer confusion.

“It’s hard to call whether it’s the right time [to reopen], and whether consumers will have the confidence to shop in ‘non-essential’ stores. We now live in a country where a child can go to the zoo, but not to school, and one person can visit one other person at home in a special ‘bubble’ yet only six can gather outside. In other words, confusion reigns, and the message is changing constantly, wear masks/ don’t wear masks, and if there is one thing a consumer hates – its uncertainty!

“I think retailers will need to feel their way through this period as they learn about consumer behaviour in this next phase of the crisis. This will need agility, clear messaging and a team that feel safe and supported to make their customers feel the same way.”

Guy Elliot, SVP, retail & consumer products EMEA & APAC at Publicis Sapient, advises retailers to work on consumer confidence and be prepared to adapt quickly to survive.

“Convincing customers to return to physical stores when they have gotten used to conveniently and safely shopping from home over the past few months will be difficult. At least at first. Without a vaccine or a clear resolution to Covid-19 in sight, shoppers will be nervous about entering bricks & mortar stores and the risk associated with it. Retailers need to work doubly hard to instil consumer confidence with their safety measures – social distancing, contactless, perspex screens, sanitisation etc, whilst also proving their value and worth over, and in addition to eCommerce platforms. These efforts will require a reimagination of how stores fundamentally operate, and more importantly, it means a higher emphasis on customer experience. This will be the key differentiator between retailers that succeed and those that sadly don’t. Retailers need to quickly adapt to their new reality and understand how best they can support their customers considering the sharp acceleration in consumer adoption of digital over the lockdown period. They need to accelerate their omnichannel propositions to ensure that they have a successful second half of the year in the run up to the peak Christmas period.”

Rebecca Saunders, founder and CEO of Seekology, believes beauty will need to reinvent itself.

“It’s a challenge to reopen retail safely – particularly in the beauty sector – where in-store purchases are driven by the ability to smell, feel and try products as well as face-to-face applications for categories like make up. Over time, beauty brands will need to think about single-use testers or smaller product sizes to encourage customers to make their first purchase of something new.

“The queues outside retailers from Zara to Louis Vuitton in Paris are encouraging, and I believe we'll see real polarisation in what customers want. Some will be chomping at the bit to have a real-life physical shopping experience, whilst others will be extremely nervous and will take a "wait-and-see" approach before venturing out to stores. Of course, many people will be deterred from using public transport, so I expect to see local centres and out of town shopping centres – places that are set up for travelling by car, bike or on foot – to take a disproportionate share of footfall in the early days of reopening.”

Paul Martin, head of retail at KPMG, questions whether footfall will be high enough to reboot retail?

“For those retailers that were deemed non-essential during the nation’s lockdown, the re-opening of stores on Monday 15 June marks a pivotal date. Their businesses will finally be able to return, but the situation remains far from normal and many won’t be in a position to start where they left off. We have to remember that customer footfall plays a key role in determining the success of stores, and without the added traffic from workers popping in during their lunchbreak, or consumers socialising nearby, customer numbers are likely to remain low in the short to medium-term.

“Stores may well have the green light to reopen, but the consumer landscape has undoubtedly changed significantly in light of Covid-19. Fundamentally, retailers aren’t just thinking about opening their front doors, they’re thinking about whether their business model and proposition is still valid; whether their customers still consider them relevant; and whether they have the resources at hand to recover and accept the environment in which they now operate.”

Susannah Schofield OBE, director general of DTC retail body The Direct Selling Association, isn’t sure shoppers will rush back to the high street.

“The closure of shops during lockdown has led to an unprecedented rise in consumer demand across direct to consumer retail channels, and there are currently no signs of this trend reversing. With many people remaining apprehensive about returning to pre-lockdown behaviours, it doesn’t appear likely that consumers will rush back to traditional shopping environments.

“I think it’s clear that a fairly drastic re-think in strategy is needed by brands as they critically assess which retail channels are going to deliver in a post-lockdown Britain, and it’s clear that ‘non-traditional’ routes to market need to be taken more seriously by the retail sector.”

Andy Mulcahy, head of insight at IMRG, is worried about the impact of having to queue to enter a store.

“I suspect what will happen is we’ll see an initial surge in store traffic, as people will be eager to get out and do things after so long stuck inside. It’s hard to see how that will sustain though, if they find they have to queue for 30 minutes to get in anywhere. Big queues everywhere is the reverse of where we were supposed to be going, if you consider the checkout-less stores Amazon have been trialling. If it happens that things go very well with suppressing the virus – given flu bugs are usually much less prevalent over summer months – social distancing restrictions might be eased which could give it another boost; but then it might come back in November. A certain portion of activity has moved online and will stay there, but getting out and doing things in the real world again will have no small amount of appeal.”

Preston Benson, founder of Really Local Group, says retail needs to reassure consumers that it’s OK to leave their homes.

“Now is the right time to reopen. This virus is not playing in the way the scientists first thought, having been modelled on a flu pandemic, while it’s tragic, the risk to the public, and especially in London, has now gone, it’s time to reopen things up. If we stick to social distancing, this is really important, people are mentally locked away, being at home has become the new normal, not sustainable, we need to show it’s ok to go to the cinema, to go to work and go to the store.”

Mark Constantine OBE, co-founder and MD of Lush, is grateful for the government’s economic help during the past 11 weeks.

“Even with considerable help from governments, local councils and landlords, so many businesses are not making it through. I am grateful to be here reopening our shops again and feel unbelievably lucky that we had the help.”

Irene Maguire, founder & director of design agency Caulder Moore, predicts that some areas of retail will move to an appointment-based personal shopping experience.

“Much of the research on customer sentiment points to a huge desire to socially engage again, and enjoy human contact. High streets have evidently become busier, so clearly people are becoming more confident, but we need more than just food stores, pharmacies and takeaways to drive more traffic, increase dwell time, and add colour, variety, dynamism and interest back to our high streets.

“I think we will see more bookable appointments for smaller stores and brands, which in many ways presents opportunities to re-engage, and reconnect with customers to nurture closer bonds, and make them feel special, indulged and valued by inviting them into a more intimate and personalised brand experience.”