U.K. stores hope to lure back COVID-weary shoppers
Touching merchandise may be discouraged, many changing rooms to be off-limits
The hand sanitizing stations are ready, the social distance markings in place. After a three-month shutdown under coronavirus restrictions, London's Oxford Street is ready to spring back to life — but things will not quite look or feel "normal" for the British capital's most famous shopping street.
"Non-essential" retailers — those selling fashion, toys and books, among other items — are reopening Monday across England for the first time since the country went into lockdown in late March to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
While it's a moment many business owners have eagerly looked forward to, they aren't expecting shoppers to rush back to what could be a strange, sterile experience.
Stores must meet Britain's COVID-19 guidelines to ensure that shoppers and workers can stay safe. In many shops and malls, that means lining up to enter, using hand sanitizers at the door and following a one-way traffic system inside. Plastic screens will protect workers from shoppers at payment counters and some shops will only take cards, not cash.
Browsing the aisles will be a welcome change from scrolling online, but touching merchandise may be discouraged and many change rooms will be off-limits.
At London's Oxford Street, which is normally teeming with shoppers crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, businesses have installed scores of signs to ensure social distancing. Some sidewalks have been widened and extra bike stations were put up to encourage shoppers to travel there without using the city's Underground subway.
With virtually no tourists in town, London's entire West End shopping and theatre district is expected to see just 10 to 15 per cent of its normal customers this week. What it will miss most is its high-spending international tourists, for they now face a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Britain.
Fashion and luxury goods have been hard-hit industries in the pandemic, especially as a deep recession looms for both Britain and the world economy.
Slow transition expected
Linda Pilkington, who owns a high-end perfume boutique off London's Bond Street, which is renowned for its designer and jewellery shops, said the pleasure of going shopping for many customers is going to be dulled because restaurants, theatres and other entertainment facilities still remain closed. She expects an extremely slow transition to a new normal.
"People like the social side of shopping. When you hit Bond Street and all the grand shops, it's an exciting event," she said. "All those people coming to London for a show, making a weekend of it, that won't be there. It's just not going to be the same."
Pilkington's tiny shop, Ormonde Jayne, will only let one customer in at a time. Shoppers will be encouraged to sanitize their hands and the whole store needs to be wiped down every time a shopper leaves.
John Lewis, a popular British department store with outlets around the country, says it's hoping to turn the lower shopper numbers into an advantage.
"I'm hopeful that, while the overall atmosphere will feel a bit different to them, what they'll actually find is a kind of pleasant surprise that it's calm, it's pleasant, it's well ordered," said Andrew Murphy, director of operations. "But it's also still got the real advantage of the physical shopping experience and the things that you can't do online."
Lures for shoppers
To lure wary shoppers back, the upscale department store Selfridges has lined up street performers to entertain anyone queuing up outside, while DJs will be playing music inside to liven things up. Selfridges said the last time it had to close its doors was during the Second World War, when it was hit by a bomb in 1941.
Analysts say the pandemic has accelerated a shift to online shopping, not least because many businesses need to cut their rental costs to survive. Paul Martin, U.K. head of retail at KPMG, believes that even as more stores reopen, "consumers have formed new habits that will see the online channel continue to be more prominent going forward.
Sounding a note of optimism Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to return to what the country calls its "high streets" — local main street shopping districts in each community.
"People should shop, and shop with confidence," he said.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak echoed that plea on a BBC talk show.
"Shops up and down the country are desperate to welcome us all back," he said.