Shops are open again. Here’s what to expect if you’re heading out

Charles McQuillan / Stringer

Hellen Stirling-Baker’s toy shop, Small Stuff in Sheffield, is reopening this week. But she has a problem: how do you stop children from picking up toys and playing with them? “We’ve spent quite a long time trying to figure that part out,” she says.
Ahead of non-essential stores officially reopening from June 15, Stirling-Baker has removed the cozy reading corner that previously entertained tots, and reimagined the store as a showroom, with only one of each product on display. Thankfully, Small Stuff has plenty of room to keep shoppers apart, as it was designed to accommodate parents pushing prams. “We’ve always been very open to people touching things, playing with toys… we’ve had to rethink how to use the space,” she says.


Shopkeepers across the UK have had to grapple with such challenges over the past few weeks, as the government guidance for reopening out of lockdown is by necessity vague. “It’s a flexible framework that says no two retail shops are the same,” says Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA). “Now apply some common sense, look at your business, do the risk assessment and implement what you can do to make it safe.”
There’s no set figure on how many people can be allowed in each shop, but the government does specify that shoppers must be able to keep 2m apart, that queues shouldn’t clog pavements, and that products need to be cleaned thoroughly if touched, with the ability of stores to achieve all this checked via self assessments.
The loose rules mean would-be customers will have to learn how each shop now operates, and some brands have published guides to study beforehand: Selfridges has released a chart and John Lewis a video outlining their new normals for shopping. Join the queue outside the specified entrance doors, and wait for a member of staff to signal that you can enter. Sanitise your hands on the way in, stay 2m away from other shoppers — which is eight steps on an escalator, apparently — and follow any one-way directional signs. Contactless payments are preferred, cashiers will be protected by Perspex around the tills, and shoppers will leave via exit-only doors. Forget cafes, makeup counters and in some cases toilets — they’ll be closed.
Anything you touch or try on will have to be cleaned and set aside for a few days before it can be returned to shelves. “We will also be offering demo products in-store, so those customers looking to try out a new phone or parents-to-be looking for a new pushchair will be able to handle these items, but we do ask that customers let a [member of staff] know which product they would like to demo so we can clean it after use,” says Peter Cross, director of customer experience at John Lewis.


But what’s necessary or possible at a national department store chain is different than what an independent toy shop or small boutique will require. Monika Curry runs Bodenhams, an independent department store in Ludlow and is a member of a local boutique owners group. “We’re disappointed that we were basically put in the same bag as Zara or Primark, when our shops have a very different way of operating,” she says.
That said, most stores will have the basics of a queue, social distancing and deep cleaning, with a few variations. One question is changing rooms. John Lewis and Primark will not be opening their fitting rooms but Selfridges will, sanitising and quarantining for 72 hours any clothes and shoes before returning them to the shop floor. Amy Cook, of Sorrelle Style in Warrington, will be opening changing rooms at her shop, after polling her customers on social media. She already steam cleans clothing when it comes into the shop, so now it’ll be cleaned between customers trying on items too. “That will kill any germs,” she says.
Another quandary for shop owners is how many people can be allowed inside at once, as the UK simply requires that everyone be able to keep 2m apart — and that’s one area where BIRA’s Goodacre thinks the government guidance could have been clearer. “In some parts of Europe, there is a one person per 10 metre square of trading area,” he says. “If that was in [the guidance], then we would have a consistent approach in terms of capacity.” The government could be reticent to be specific because of growing demands to slash the 2m rule to 1m.
Regardless of capacity, there’s different ways to manage customer numbers. John Lewis will have an app to help staff count customers coming in and leaving through different doors, while Primark has hired additional security staff to help customers follow social distancing while queuing. Malls run by Intu have adapted their footfall monitoring systems to better manage numbers of people while Westfield is using live footfall cameras at its shopping centres. Smaller stores likely won’t have the benefit of these technie luxuries, or even a bouncer at the door. Cook says it’ll be her alone working in Sorrelle Style, with only two customers allowed in at a time — but it’ll be down to shoppers to check to see who is inside and comply. “We’ve got signs clearly marked on the door,” she says.


Some stores will be offering pre-booked slots to shop. Selfridges has announced after-hours shopping trips by appointment, while the New West End organisation, which promotes and manages Oxford Street and Regent Street in London, is offering a booking service across multiple stores in the area for those wanting a perfectly planned mid-pandemic shopping spree. Curry will also let her customers book appointments at Bodehman’s because many of them are older and therefore at a higher risk from Covid-19. Her shop is set over three floors, so can easily accommodate a customer on each without any social distancing concerns. “They’ll get a slot to come in and can let us know ahead of time if they want someone serving them or if they’d just like to browse,” she says.
Not all stores will open immediately. John Lewis is beginning with Kingston and Poole, and has no plans as yet to open its flagship store on Oxford Street. That strategy makes sense, says Adam Hadley, CEO of data science consultancy QuantSpark, who analysed open-source data from sources such as Transport for London to help inform its clients which branches should open and which stay closed.
“That sort of data is really helpful to understand how footfall is changing, especially in the cities,” he says. “What we’re seeing is the urban conurbations are not coming back, and that’s because the level of footfall, let’s say on Oxford Street, will be driven by people who work in the vicinity.” With more people working from home and transport authorities discouraging unnecessary travel, it makes more sense to open branches that are closer to where people actually live, he adds.
These changes are only the first round in the short term. If the pandemic carries on for longer, retailers may invest in additional systems. John Lewis touted the idea of virtual queuing, letting shoppers book a time slot, as well as returns drop boxes and setting up click and collect services in car parks. Other ideas include apps that let customers scan products as they shop and pay on their phone without queuing, which have been trialled at Sainsbury’s for two years, but may now see wider adoption. “It’s encouraging self-service, but taking it even further,” Hadley says.
Reduced hours and fewer customers allowed in stores may make it hard for shops to rack up enough sales, especially for smaller retailers. It’s unclear whether it’s even worth re-opening. “We don’t know,” says Cook. “These days it’s all a bit of a learning curve.”
Though online sales are important, there are still a lot of customers that want to come in and touch and try and feel clothes before they buy, Cook says. As a small boutique, she believes there should be less risk than a busy high street or mall. “I do feel we pose less risk for customer shopping, which in theory should keep us busy,” she says.
But sales aren’t the only concern. Reopening puts staff at risk of infection, even with Perspex-protected tills and social distancing. Masks are not required by the government for shoppers or staff, though many stores say they’ll be offering PPE to staff — John Lewis is manufacturing 12,000 masks a week to hand to staff who do wish to wear them. “We’ve had a lot of time to think things through, so we do feel we’ve covered all of our bases,” says Cook. “But with this virus, you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s so unpredictable… so there is an element of nervousness.”
Stirling-Baker agrees. “I’m excited to be back in the shop, but I am a little apprehensive,” she says. “I don’t want to be seen as a nag — there will be people who completely understand and get it… but I’m apprehensive about how much people will stick to the rules, and what it means if they don’t. We don’t really know until we’re out there doing it.”
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