Shops welcome back customers but businesses say social distancing could cut margins | UK News

After two-and-a-half months in lockdown, non-essential shops UK-wide will be allowed to reopen their doors today.

But many small retailers fear for their survival amid a boom in online sales and new social distancing rules designed to ensure safety.

It’s possible shopping will never be the same again – John Lewis and Partners has told Sky News that the pandemic is likely to “change the future of retail”.

A person walks past a boarded up Debenhams, Oxford Street

Open markets and car show rooms were allowed to open two weeks ago on the 1 June, and Northern Ireland allowed shops to reopen on Friday.

Today, all non-essential shops will follow providing they stick to guidelines designed to keep staff and customers safe from the coronavirus.

Shops must ensure two-metre distancing is always maintained and they are encouraged to use contactless payments where possible, discourage the touching of products and ensure that any items being returned are quarantined for 72 hours.

Many say these measures are likely to affect their margins.

Sheryl Shurville runs Chorleywood Bookshop in Rickmansworth, Herts. She’s excited to reopen but wary of the challenges ahead.

During lockdown her income has fallen by 90%.

“It’s been devastating”, she said.

“I’m worried if we’re going to take enough money to make the business viable, because a lot of our business was author events and schools events and that’s not coming back.”

John Lewis said they are preparing for a phased reopening of their department stores.
John Lewis says it’s preparing for a phased reopening of their department stores

“So without that I don’t know how viable the business is going to be. And also our overheads, we still have to pay rent and in fact our landlord wants a rent increase. The figures just don’t stack up.”

For large and small retailers alike it’s about instilling confidence – without it, customers won’t come.

At John Lewis and Partners they are limiting numbers of people in stores, sanitising products and even providing disposable covers for customers trying pillows and mattresses.

social distancing rules
Social distancing is feared to affect the number of customers shopping on the high street

During lockdown the company has seen an online boom and they recognise this may be the future.

“It could change the future of retail positively,” says Berangere Michel, executive director of customer service at John Lewis and Partners.

“What I’ve seen over the last 12 weeks is greater innovation than ever. We launched virtual services, we didn’t know if it was going to work or not. It would normally have taken weeks or months to do it, but it took days and we had 2000 bookings.

“Clearly we are constantly, like any other retailers, doing a review of our estate and our shops. If we have too many or too much space we rightsize, or we change it, that’s just business.”

The high street was already having a hard time before the COVID-19 shutdown and household names such as Debenhams will not reopen all its stores.

Many fear that reduced customer numbers will push other businesses into administration. That could affect shopping centres which reply on rents.

At Centre Mk in Milton Keynes, they are confident in the business model but acknowledge that their future holds major uncertainties.

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“There’s been some press recently about retailers going out of business or going into administration,” says Kevin Duffy, Centre MK’s centre director.

“We don’t quite know what that means yet, We’re not sure and I don’t think we’ll know over the next month. I think it will take much longer than that to really understand what’s happening in the country and the world.”

With news on Friday that the economy shrunk by a record 20.4% in April, there is hope that retail reopening will be an important first step in the reopening of the broader economy.

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