IT’S been more than a month since Britain’s ‘non-essential’ retailers opened their doors to the public again. Many have had to make big changes to ensure that they are deemed Covid-safe under new guidelines, and some fear new rules surrounding the wearing of masks in stores will make customers even more reluctant to enter.
With this in mind, how has the return to shopping been going? Initial figures suggest that, despite an initial spurt of enthusiasm, the nation is still happy to do most of its shopping online — making life difficult for Britain’s small businesses.
Recent figures from Springboard show that footfall in high street shops in June was down 65 per cent on the previous year. When shopping centres and retail parks are added to the mix, the decline was 57 per cent, suggesting that high street stores are suffering the most.
‘Footfall on the high street is still very light and probably will be for some time, so it will be a long way back for lots of shops,’ says Michelle Ovens, founder of Small Business Britain (SBB).
How Britain shops now
Footfall in stores might be light, but the tills are ringing online. Recent figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) showed their first increase on last year’s figures since lockdown. Sales in June were up 10.9 per cent on the year before, a figure the BRC said was driven by online spending.
BRC head Helen Dickinson OBE says the improvement only affected certain categories, including computing, furniture and home improvement: ‘All eyes are on next month now that pubs, restaurants and cafés have reopened, in the hope it brings a much needed boost to our high streets and shopping centres’.
Paul Martin, the UK head of retail at consultants KPMG adds that, particularly in the clothing sector, there was an increased focus on online shopping, with fears that physical retail may struggle to recover. ‘The pandemic has significantly changed consumer behaviour. It’s therefore vital that routes to market and ways of working are adapted with that fact in mind,’ he says.
‘Whether consumers will forego the convenience of online shopping now that they’ve become accustomed to it, remains a fundamental question for the future.’
How smaller businesses are faring
Andrew Goodacre, head of BIRA, the British Independent Retailers Association, suggests that he is concerned how small businesses are coping with the ‘new normal’, given that rents are due and considerable traffic and parking restrictions are being put into place in some areas of the UK.
’Consumers are not returning to the non-food shops in the numbers we would like, and we are not helped by local authorities closing streets, removing car parking spaces and essentially making it more difficult to access local high streets and towns.’
Customers will also have to wear masks in shops from Wednesday, a situation that Andrew says BIRA has ‘concerns’ over ‘but is advising its members to help reinforce the legislation.’ He adds: ‘We are thankful shop staff will not be legally required to wear masks but many will do so to reinforce the need for their customers to.’
Michelle at SBB agrees that it may change shopping behaviour. ‘Wearing masks in shops is going to be a change, but hopefully people will adapt. Some shoppers will find the requirement to wear masks makes them feel safer, whereas for others it might be a turn-off.’
Getting back in business
Experts say that, despite the difficult environment and perceived fear over incoming mask rules, there are ways to stimulate customer demand and keep income flowing. Here are four top tips:
■ Keep up your pivot
Michelle at SBB advises keeping up the services that have been offered over lockdown and including click-and-collect options for those who aren’t ready to return yet. ‘So many small businesses have undertaken successful pivots during lockdown and it’s important that they keep thinking creatively like this,’ she says. ‘As we are going to be living with the impact of the virus for some time, it is also vital that small independent shops have support to embrace the other ways that customers now want to shop — such as online, click and collect and takeaways.’
■ Signal your safety
Customers respond well to clear messages of safety, and with masks now compulsory from Wednesday, shops need to signal that this is understood and that other measures are adhered to. Leah Hutcheon, CEO of online booking specialists Appointedd, says her company have found that the availability of hand sanitiser and capacity management are shoppers’ main requirements to feeling safe.
■ Talk to your community
Many small businesses say community spirit is helping them get through lockdown, so engaging locally on social media will help you tempt customers back. ‘As a small independent business, our local community has been essential in supporting us both online and in store. It has been a real eye-opener how dedicated our customers are to supporting us,’ says Bella Middleton of Norfolk Natural Living in Holt, Norfolk.
■ Offer appointments
An Appointedd study found that 79 per cent of people are more likely to visit retail outlets that limit the number of people. Three quarters would rather book a guaranteed entry time. ‘Moss Bros and Mamas & Papas both offer private shopping appointments, where you can book to be the only customer in-store for the first and last hours of the day. Both brands have also offered general appointments to save their valued customers from having to queue,’ says Appointedd’s Leah Hutcheon.
■ Michelle Ovens MBE, founder of Small Business Britain
■ Andrew Goodacre, CEO of BIRA, the British Independent Retailers Association
■ Helen Dickinson OBE, head of the British Retail Association
■ Paul Martin, UK head of retail at consultants KPMG
■ Leah Hutcheon, founder and CEO of Appointedd
‘People wait on the threshold asking if it’s safe’
DEE STRINGER’S pet accessories shop, The Slumbering Hound, had been open for only a few weeks when lockdown hit. In the grounds of stately home Hatfield House, she had expected a busy season full of coach trips and visitors. Instead, her now reopened shop is quiet.
‘It is very different to the way I was expecting,’ she says. ‘But there are walkers coming in, and I encourage them to bring their dogs in, too. The local community are very supportive.’
Dee also uses the shop as her studio, as she makes bespoke pet accessories inspired by her greyhound, Aston. The studio area means that there is plenty of space for customers to shop safely. ‘I’m behind a partition and there’s a kitchen so I can wash my hands a lot.’
Although she is as welcoming as possible, Dee says that not everyone feels that they can enter the store.
‘I get lots of people standing on the threshold asking if it is OK to come in and I have to reassure them. I think compulsory masks will make it hard for people, too, until they get used to it.’
‘I’m sure we’ll come out of this stronger’
WHEN lockdown happened, stationery lover Sidonie Warren had to close her five stores and switched to working remotely, cycling from central London to Hackney, where she lives, to top up her inventory to fulfil online orders. However, she was keen to reopen her Papersmiths chain as soon as non-essential shops were allowed to admit customers once again.
‘For safety, we’re limiting customers to four people, and have giant stickers on the floor reminding people to keep their distance,’ she says. ‘Glass screens at the till point keep our team and customers safe when interacting. We’re taking safety really seriously.’
One month on and Sidonie says that, while takings are down, she is confident that the lockdown experience has increased local support for her stores.
‘It’s been quiet but the atmosphere has been one of community and support. All our regulars are stopping by to say hi and stock up on thank-you cards and replace their now full-to-the-brim notebooks and journals.
‘Although the wider situation seems somewhat out of my control, and that’s something I find hard to accept, I feel we’re doing everything to help our customers feel confident.
‘In terms of the business, I’m fully prepared and armed with the numbers. I’ve put together detailed financial scenarios using our accounting software, Xero. This enables me to see what our cash position will be up to three years from now and to compare how we’re doing to our run rate month-on-month and year-on-year. This knowledge enables me to be reactive and to stay ahead of what’s coming.’
Sidonie has also ensured that her team are gaining new skills at times when customers are scarce.
‘They’ve pivoted in their roles and are supporting with photography, content creation and ecommerce management in the quiet spells in-store,’ she says. ‘It’s been incredible and I’m sure we’ll come out of this stronger on the other side.’