Retail outlets in England selling non-essential items are opening Monday for the first time since March, as the government eases restrictions put in place to curb the coronavirus.
Businesses have installed sneeze screens, “sanitation stations,” and other features to make shopping more hygienic once they open up. Whether customers will feel safe enough to return in large numbers remains to be seen.
Getting people back into stores is crucial for Britain’s 400 billion-pound ($500 billion) retail industry, and for the country at large, which relies on consumer spending for about 60% of gross domestic product. Retailers employ more than 3 million people and contribute to the social and economic fabric of town centers across England.
At its flagship outlet on Oxford Street, Marks & Spencer Group Plc has installed at least 20 large signs, 150 floor markings to reinforce the need for social distancing, sneeze screens on 11 checkout points and three hand sanitizer units at its main entrances. Changing rooms and cafes will be closed, and services such as bra fitting have been paused. Retailers elsewhere are taking similar steps.
“We’d certainly like to return some confidence to our high street, given that it’s been three months in lockdown,” Jace Tyrell, chief executive officer of New West End Company, which represents more than 600 businesses in London’s West End, told Bloomberg TV. “But it’s going to feel very different out there.”
The U.K. economy shrank by a fifth in April, and could be headed for its biggest contraction in three centuries in 2020. To encourage consumers to hit the stores, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested during a Sunday trip to Westfield mall that regulations requiring people to stay 2 meters (6 feet 7 inches) apart in public spaces could be relaxed as infection rates fall. “People should shop, and shop with confidence,” he said.
“I think social distancing and safety, or course we have to prioritize that,” said Tyrell. “But the difference between 2 meters and 1 meter, if you take the hospitality sector, the restaurants, which obviously support the retail and the high street, the difference is between 30% trade and 70% trade, so it’s a massive game changer.”
Desperate to re-start the economy, Johnson must avoid unleashing a second wave of the virus. Britain has lagged behind European neighbors in its handling of the pandemic and in getting businesses back up and running. More than 41,700 people have died from the virus in the U.K., the most in Europe, undermining confidence in the government and leaving many individuals concerned about returning to crowded trains, town centers and shopping malls.
“We need to get Britain’s economy firing again, while at the same time making sure we keep people safe and avoid a second peak of the disease,” Business Secretary Alok Sharma wrote in a column for the Express newspaper. “Britain can enjoy shopping again, although not quite in the same way as before.”
Consumer trust that retailers are doing their best to keep them safe is even more important at a time when confidence in the government and the economy is low. Jessica Moulton, U.K. head of retail at McKinsey & Co., said the most recent survey by the firm showed just 15% of British consumers were optimistic about the economy’s ability to return to normal in the next few months.
Similarly, a survey of more than 1,000 consumers by Dynata LLC, a market research firm, showed that 42% of consumers thought it was still too early to reopen stores. Only one in 10 said they intended to visit a non-essential retailer on Monday. While stores in England are reopening, those in Scotland are on a different schedule.
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During the 2020 Covid-19 epidemic, lockdown has come to mean the practice of attempting to control transmission of the virus by means of restricting people’s movement and activities on a broad scale, usually on a national or state-wide basis.