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Multichannel retailers emphasise in-store services as they finalise plans for reopenings next week

John Lewis has prioritised making it easy for customers to collect their online orders

Multichannel retailers are putting the emphasis on in-store services as they finalise plans to reopen their stores in England and Wales next Monday. John Lewis will reopen its changing rooms and measure children’s feet, while shoppers in Ikea will be able to use in-store planning services, albeit behind a screen. 

At the same time both will continue to make shopping across online and in-store channels more convenient, with click and collect continuing to expand. 

The plans come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday said the roadmap plan for shops to reopen on April 12 could go ahead, since 31m people have now been vaccinated against Covid-19, mostly during the third lockdown, which started on January 6, and infections are relatively low. 

But the reopenings come after a year in which thousands of shops have closed. The Centre for Retail Research said last week that 188,685 UK jobs had been lost since shops were first forced to close a year ago. Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins will be among the retailers that do not open next week, since parent company the Arcadia Group went into administration ahead of Christmas and during lockdown its brands were bought by online-only retailers including Boohoo and Asos

How Top500 retailers are planning their reopenings

RXUK Top500 Leading retailer John Lewis says it will reopen its changing rooms and restart children’s shoe fitting, while offering in-person appointments for services including nursery planning and personal styling when its shops in England and Wales reopen next Monday. Its Edinburgh shop reopens from refurbishment on May 14, and its Glasgow store is expected to open on April 26. Protective screens and social distancing will continue to be in place, while customer service hosts will manage in-store numbers both at entrances and in busy areas of its stores. 

Returns will be made to drop boxes where stock is quarantined for 48 hours, while its rewards customers can also return beauty product packaging for recycling for the first time in months. 

Multichannel services continue to expand, with the reopening of John Lewis stores taking the department store’s collection points to more than 900 – including branches of Waitrose, Co-op and Booths. 

The retailer is also to stock furniture from online vintage and antique retailer Vinterior in its Kingston store from April 12. 

Pippa Wicks, partner and executive director at John Lewis, says: “We are delighted to be welcoming our much-missed customers into our shops once more. We’re looking forward to reuniting customers with the joy of physical shopping, along with the excitement of our stores whilst also introducing our customers to stylish new products at prices they won’t expect. We’re also excited to be opening up much-needed services and helping customers choose those items that are harder to buy online – from the perfect mattress, to road testing the right pram or finding the right pair of jeans. We want to make sure the shopping experience is as fun and inspiring as it’s ever been, while also ensuring that our customers and partners feel safe.”

Eight John Lewis stores will not reopen from the third lockdown, taking the department store chain to a total of 34. That’s down from the 42 that reopened from the first lockdown, itself down from 50 at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Ikea, ranked Top150 in RXUK Top500 research, says its shops in England and Wales will all reopen on April 12, after its Scottish stores reopened yesterday. The retailer will continue to limit the total number of people who can be in stores, while face coverings continue to be mandatory and social distancing wardens will ensure that guidelines are followed. Payments will continue to be by card, with contactless preferred, while there will be screens in place to protect workers at checkouts, customer return points and at in-store planning services. Its restaurants will be closed until May 17, although its bistros will be able to operate a contact-free takeaway service. 

Multichannel services including click and collect, launched in the first lockdown, will remain in place while a ‘click and deliver’ service that takes items to DPD drop-off points, is currently being rolled out. Stores will continue to operate as fulfilment and distribution centres for local orders, and remote online appointments will continue to be available for planning kitchens, wardrobes and living room storage. Added to that, a remote interior design service is also being offered, while delivery costs will now start at £2, depending on the size of the product and the speed of delivery.  

Peter Jelkeby, Ikea UK and Ireland chief executive and chief sustainability officer, says: “Changes made over the past year will be vital for securing the future success of our business, as we continue our ambition to create a better everyday life for many people.”

He adds: “We’ve always believed that home is the most important place in the world. Over the past year, we’ve placed more demands on our homes than ever before, needing them to be spaces where we can live, work and play; fulfilling both our physical and emotional needs.

“Knowing that some of these shifts in our lifestyles, such as working from home, will become increasingly permanent over the coming years, our homes will need to become even more versatile and adaptable. As such we’re really looking forward to welcoming customers safely back into our stores, inspiring people to live a better and more sustainable everyday.”

Setting the context

Store reopening is likely to mean a rise in visitor numbers compared to the same time last year – because a year ago the first lockdown was well underway. Springboard figures show that over the Easter weekend, UK footfall was stronger than it was a year ago (+157.7%) – but still weaker than in 2019 (-54.9%), or, indeed, than a week earlier (-7.6%). It was at its highest in central London (+200.5%) and regional cities (+209.3%) compared to the previous year, but still well behind 2019 in both of those areas (-79.2% for Central London and -72.1% for regional cities). 

Visits to retail parks (+197% on 2020, -19.1% on 2019), were stronger than those on high streets (+145.2% 2020; -65.8% 2019), and shopping centres (+146% 2020) 

“With exceptional weather across most of the UK, it was not a surprise that last week footfall rose across all retail destinations from the week before and with the warmest weather occurring in the south it was unsurprising that this part of the UK benefited the most,” says Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard. “Footfall rose across all three destination types, but external environments inevitably benefited more than shopping centres where the rise in footfall was a third lower than in high streets and retail parks. Following the anniversary of the start of lockdown one in the week before, footfall was 1.5 times as great as it was in the same week in 2020, but still two third lower than in 2019.”

David Jinks, head of consumer research at ParcelHero, warns that it’s likely that a return to in-store shopping will be short-lived – before customers revert to buying online once more. 

He says: “Next Monday, we’ll doubtless see substantial queues outside fashion stores and a scramble for the gym. It’s been nearly four months since we have been able to visit many of our High Street favourites. But what kind of town centres and malls will we be returning to? With the likes of Debenhams, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins remaining dark, and even a chunk of John Lewis stores gone forever, it won’t be the experience it was.

“Even before the latest wave of store closures, things looked far from bright. The first lockdown ended in June 2020 and, after an initial burst of enthusiasm and early-morning queues to get into our favourite stores, things fizzled out after a few days. Looking at the Government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) retail sales figures for June 2020, as the first lockdown was lifted, the value of sales actually fell -3.2% against the previous year. Clearly, the massive, pent-up demand many High Street stores anticipated just wasn’t there.

“Town centre stores that had banked on consumers ditching their newly acquired online habits were doomed to be disappointed back in June. Online sales did fall back slightly, taking 31.8% of all retail sales, compared to 33.3% the previous month when non-essential stores were still closed. That was a slight dip, but hardly a return to “normal”, given that online was only managing to take 20% of all sales before the first lockdown. This time around, the end of lockdown could be even less spectacular.”

He adds: “Only retailers that embrace their website as their most important shop window and ensure their online service matches the standards of their in-store experience will survive.”

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