Using technology and design to reassure nervous shoppers

Variety and creativity are on display as towns and shopping centres reopen to non-essential shoppers after three months of Covid-19 lockdown.

For example, towns across North Nottinghamshire are using new space-monitoring technology to let shoppers see how busy particular streets are before they leave their homes. North Notts BID (Business Improvement District) has launched the Safe Space indicator programme to monitor shopping areas in Worksop and Retford, using Geosense mobile data to create a simple traffic light indication system to let people know if an area is already too busy.

The BID uses an anonymised and GDPR-compliant system provided by ElephantWiFi, which also provides a public WiFi network for the area. The idea is to let people choose the quietest convenient time to go shopping, to avoid everybody arriving at stores together.

“We want everyone to be able to visit our towns while feeling as safe as possible. Social distancing is going to continue to be of paramount importance, so monitoring footfall in this way will allow us to keep an eye on where there may be potential issues and give peace of mind to visitors,” says BID chief executive Sally Gillborn. “The businesses in the district have reacted incredibly to the challenges that Covid-19 has presented, and we want to do everything we can to support them as we begin to return to some semblance of normality.”

Design and operational changes could also play a key role in encouraging the economy to begin moving again, with efforts by shopping centres to bring shoppers back to their attractions being commended by politicians who are keen to get commerce back on track since non-essential stores were able to open on 15 June.

Dartford MP Gareth Johnson praised efforts made at Bluewater shopping centre, which is in his constituency, to put customer safety first as it reopened. During a question on the economy in the House of Commons, he cited the centre as a prime example of businesses working hard to provide a sense of normality to customers.

Bluewater has closed some of its car parking areas, and warned shoppers they may need to queue to enter the centre if its capacity is reached. The centre has closed every other toilet cubicle, urinal and wash basin to help maintain social distancing and, perhaps most noticeably, introduced a one-way system for shoppers inside the centre.

In response to Johnson’s remarks, Secretary to the Treasury, Jesse Norman, replied, “I pay particular tribute to the shops, malls and shopping centres that go the extra mile to be particularly safe and careful in ensuring that people can use them within more than the spirit of the regulations. Congratulations to Bluewater to the extent they have done that. I’d say one other thing which is if it helps them to communicate that wider sense of confidence in the ability to shop, then all the better.”

Meanwhile rival shopping centre group Intu established a task force of experts to create plans for its portfolio of centres. Some common principles have been adopted, while others tactics have been tailored to individual centres. The group undertook a survey of customers, finding that more than 70% would encourage compulsory hand sanitation, protective screens at tills, limits on the number of shoppers and floor markings to aid social distancing. More than 60% would support the use of CCTV and security staff to control crowds. Most said they would be happy to wait for 10 minutes to enter each store.

Intu has adapted its existing footfall-monitoring technology so that teams can manage the number of people in every centre at any time. It will manage queues outside centres when capacity is reached. It too will use measures including one-way systems, floor stickers and staff training to ensure visitors stay socially distanced once inside. Regular deep cleaning of touchpoints like escalators, toilets and keypads has been introduced. Most Intu centres had not completely closed during the crisis, because they contain stores such as pharmacies and supermarkets that shoppers needed during lockdown.

Gavin Prior, operations director at Intu, said  footfall figures on the first day of full trading were lower than on the comparable day last year, “But by 2pm [footfall] had grown by 218% compared to last Monday and we expect the number of visitors to steadily increase towards the weekend as more of us look to venture out to the shops and more brands reopen. Around 40% of the shops in Intu centres are open today and many more are planning on reopening over the next week or two as they continue to put the right safety measures in place.”

It seems that shoppers – or at least enough of them – have been convinced by the efforts made by retail property owners to ensure their safety. Shoppers rushed to Centre:MK in Milton Keynes when it reopened, with average transaction values four times higher than before the Covid-19 lockdown.

Centre:MK in Milton Keynes saw higher footfall than expected.
Centre:MK in Milton Keynes saw higher footfall than expected.

“We had made extensive plans for our shoppers to be able to return confidently and it has paid off. Footall was even better than expected and while we have had some queues for our most popular brands, because we have such wide, spacious malls and large stores, there is room for everyone to shop safely,” says centre director Kevin Duffy. “Everyone is aware it is going to take some time to readjust and rebuild, but early indications are that Centre:MK will thrive again.”