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Non-essential stores shut down: what are the new rules, and how are retailers responding?

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The shutters are down at stores across the UK today after the Prime Minister ordered all non-essential retail shops to close in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shops selling goods from fashion to footwear and electronics are now closed after Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night announced that the Government would “close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores”. 

The move comes after days in which more and more retailers have already taken the decision to close their shops for the safety of both their staff and customers. 

Responding to last night’s announcement, Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers understand the need for government to act quickly and decisively to protect public health and combat coronavirus. The safety of customers and staff is paramount, which is why retailers have responded swiftly and positively to evolving government guidance on social distancing and other hygiene matters. Indeed, many retailers had gone further and already closed shops temporarily.

“Others have continued to provide essential products and services to their customers, both from physical stores and online. Any retailers that remain open will be following the very latest government public health guidance to ensure they do everything they can to ensure the safety of customers and staff.

“The public also has a vital role to play in maintaining lifesaving social distancing practices, both in and out of stores. We must all be considerate of the needs of those around us, and respectful of the retail staff who are working round the clock to put food and other essential items on our shelves and into our homes.”

What are the guidelines?

Government guidelines say that the following shops are essential and can stay open: supermarkets and other food shops, health shops, pharmacies including non- dispensing pharmacies, petrol stations, bicycle shops, home and hardware shops, laundrettes and dry cleaners, bicycle shops, garages, car rentals, pet shops, corner shops, newsagents, post offices, and banks.

It also says that: “Online retail is still open and encouraged and postal and delivery services will run as normal.” Food takeaway and delivery is also permitted. 

Those stores that are permitted to stay open include must now make sure they maintain a distance of at least two metres between customers and shop assistants. People can only enter the shop in small groups to make sure there’s no crowding, while queue control is now required outside shops and other premises that remain open.  


How are retailers responding?

Waitrose is introducing queue marshals outside shops to make sure its supermarkets remain safe for shoppers. Inside them, it’s putting signage on the floors to guide shoppers, and is ordering screen guards to protect people at checkouts and visors to protect staff. It is encouraging shoppers to pay by contactless or to download its QuickCheck App onto their phones. 

Bérangère Michel, executive director, customer service at John Lewis Partnership said: “While these measures will dramatically change how people shop and interact with others in our stores for the moment – they are absolutely vital to ensure that our customers can shop safely and that our partners are protected as they go above and beyond to serve shoppers in this time of crisis.”

Most retailers in “non-essential” categories are shutting their shops and directing customers who still want to buy online. Games Workshop today went further and said it would close its stores, headquarters, factory and warehouses in order to protect its staff. 

Sports Direct is reported to have contacted its staff to say that its stores would open today as its fitness equipment would be essential for those looking to keep fit at home. But today it issued a clarification, while Michael Gove said in a round of BBC interviews that he did not think Sports Direct shops were essential.

Chris Wootton, chief financial officer at Sports Direct owner Frasers Group, said: “We will not open our Sports Direct or Evans stores to the public, even though government policy excludes ’bicycle shops’ from closure until we are given the go ahead by the Government. Please note we are contacting them at all levels including attempting to get confirmation from the Prime Minister.”

WH Smith says it is closing about 60% of its shops and keeping about 40% open to provide essential services. services. 

A WH Smith spokesperson said in a statement today: “We have served our communities for over 227 years. Further to the Prime Minister’s most recent announcement, we are closing all stores apart from those designated essential by the government.  At this critical time, WHSmith will continue to provide vital post office services for customers to access key postal and banking services; food and drinks to NHS staff from our hospital stores, and a convenience offer in key small towns and travel locations where communities rely on our smaller newsagent services.  About 40% of our UK store portfolio is remaining open to provide customers with these important services.

“We are very proud of all our colleagues across our stores who are doing an outstanding job in continuing to serve our customers and communities. Our key priority is their health and wellbeing and we have a number of strict measures in place to keep everyone safe and supported.  Given the fast evolving situation, our stores will be under constant review and we will support our colleagues through this difficult time.”

Can online step up to fill the retail gap?

Shoppers who can no longer buy from stores are being directed online. But as yet, said JD Sports today, online is not filling the gap left by its shops. “As of now, essentially all of our stores are closed in UK, United States and Europe,” it said in a trading update today. “In a typical week, at this time of the year, we would expect the stores which are closed to contribute substantially all of the group’s physical store sales.

“Whilst our trading websites continue to accept and fulfil orders and, whilst we have seen a resilient performance to date in most territories, this represents a comparatively small mitigation in terms of overall profit contribution.”


Shoppers are likely to be holding off purchases of non-essential goods until they have more certainty about their own incomes and the future of the businesses they work for.


Online grocers, meanwhile, are finding online delivery slots are booked up for weeks ahead. Ocado is prioritising existing customers, while Sainsbury’s has said that it will reserve slots for vulnerable customers. The Sainsbury’s groceries site today warns that it “remains exceptionally busy” and advises shoppers to come back later to see if more slots are available. Tesco is limiting orders to three of each product to avoid enabling panic buying. 


Image: Adobe Stock

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