Queues and limited browsing in store for English shoppers

LONDON (Reuters) – People eager to hit the shops again when English high street retailers, department stores and shopping centres reopen will face queuing and few opportunities to try products.

Stores will look and operate very differently from how they did before a coronavirus lockdown was imposed on March 23 as they comply with new health and safety and social distancing rules.

The British government said on Monday that outdoor markets and car showrooms in England can reopen from June 1 followed by all other non-essential retail from June 15.

The reopening only applies to England, with retailers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland waiting for guidance from their devolved administrations on when they can resume trading.

Several of the biggest retailers are not planning to open a swathe of stores straight away, with retail analysts warning that compliance with the new health regulations will bring complexity to trading and higher operating and capital costs.

Next (NXT.L), which has about 500 clothing stores in Britain and Ireland, said it would only reopen 25 on June 15, while department store chain John Lewis, which has 50 stores, said it would phase its reopening to test the changes.

Fashion retailer Primark (ABF.L), which has about 190 stores in Britain, said it would only reopen them when “convinced that it is safe and right to do so.”

Marks & Spencer (MKS.L), which has kept its food business going through the crisis, was the exception in planning to reopen the majority of its clothing activities on June 15.

Look, don’t touch

All four retailers are benefiting from a job retention furlough scheme which the government told employers they will not have to help meet the cost of until August.

The safety guidance, laid out in a 33-page document, requires more cleaning, queuing systems with one-way flows and increased signage, and fewer customers in stores, while shopping with children is discouraged.

As at supermarkets, which have traded through the lockdown, check-out areas in English stores will have increased screening, while store staff will wear equipment such as face masks and gloves. Regular hand sanitisation will be encouraged.

Customers will also be encouraged to avoid handling products whilst browsing – a particular problem for clothing retailers.

Fitting rooms should be closed wherever possible, while goods that have been tried-on or returned by customers should be stored in a container or separate room for 72 hours, or cleaned, before being re-displayed.

“Queues outside stores, restricted numbers inside, no ability to browse with friends, nor to try on (or possibly even touch) clothes before the purchasing decision will all severely detract from the shopping experience,” David Beadle of Moody’s Investors Service said.

“As such, prospects of lower revenue and additional costs will see some retailers keep shops closed initially at least.”

Reporting and photo: Reuters

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