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EDITORIAL Lockdown ends: how retailers approach the challenges of re-opening

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With the UK’s lockdown expected to start being lifted – albeit slowly – in the next few days, retailers across the board need to start thinking about how that is going to happen and, perhaps more importantly, what retail is going to look like in the coming months.

While we are past the peak of this wave of coronavirus, it is clear that the world as we knew it has changed and that retailers are going to have to adapt to new ways of operating. So, what can we expect to see and how can retailers rise to the challenge?

Of course, the shift to ecommerce that was forced on most consumers by the shutting down of everything bar supermarkets at the end of March is likely to stay the norm. With ecommerce growth of 23% week-on-week after some already stellar rises earlier in lockdown, the likelihood of shoppers abandoning ecommerce and heading to stores in a one fell swoop is unlikely.

However, what is likely is that cabin-fevered shoppers will want to make some forays into the outside world. DIY stores are likely to be early beneficiaries – as B&Q has already seen. The desire to buy plants and garden equipment, to finally repaint the kitchen and more are going to have a strong pull.

Shopping for clothes also may too pull people to the shops. While online sales of High Street fashion have all but collapsed, the need for new clothes – especially as the season changes – is strong. The problem with apparel has likely been not just that at the height of the pandemic it wasn’t seen as essential – what with no one going out – but also that it isn’t something people like to buy sight-unseen.

This has long been an issue for online apparel sales; people like to try it on and, despite many technical solutions attempting to bridge that gap, nothing has really changed that.

High Street fashion aside, all retailers will see, when they open their doors, a huge change in how they operate.

For starters, officious shop staff in tabards outside Waitrose barring anyone from walking past in case they are ‘queue jumping’ are sadly going to become the norm everywhere. However, understanding that they have no actual power to stop anyone doing anything – including queue jumping – needs to be drilled into them. They are there to guide people, not police them.

Shoppers will plan their visits more tactically, perhaps even using apps to see what is and isn’t in stock at which shops before heading to them, as well as checking stock and essentially buying to collect in store – the store staff perhaps acting more as personal pickers than ever before.

This has some quite far reaching implications for staff and workforce management. As Chris Love, Managing Partner Workforce Transformation, REPL Group, told me this week: “This could be one example of how other retailers will need to operate upon reopening, marking the beginning of a paradigm shift whereby social distancing measures mean retail employees do the ‘shopping’ for customers instead. This approach will make their roles more labour intensive, so retailers need to think about workforce management issues ahead of time. This will include increasing staff members to fulfil these roles and ensuring they continue to safeguard their employees, for example, by tracking which employees work together for potential contact tracing and allowing time for frequent deep cleaning”.

In fact, managing, tracking and keeping safe the workforce is now set to be a top priority for all retailers. Over the course of the lockdown we have seen how online retailers have had to adapt their warehousing and delivery processes. Now retailers are going to have to do the same with their store staff.

They are also going to have to look at how to be hybrid online-real world retailers in ways that they hadn’t perhaps considered before. Some retailers are even considering using robots to help keep social distancing in place while still selling. Either way, we are in for some interesting times as things start to open up.

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