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What do new Covid-19 guidelines means for retailers, both online and offline?

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Retail staff will have to wear face coverings at work from this week, while Covid-secure guidelines previously set out for the sector will now become a legal obligation, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said today. Johnson was speaking in the House of Commons at a time when the rate of Covid-19 infection is rising again. The latest update means that retailers will have to provide risk assessments and ensure that cleaning and social distancing take place in shops. Customers – like staff – must wear face coverings and anyone who appears to have Covid-19 symptoms should be turned away. 

But perhaps the most significant change to affect retailers in today’s announcement is not one aimed directly at them in the guidelines. Today’s request for office workers to work from home where they can comes just weeks after the government encouraged office workers to return to their offices, as school children returned to their studies. 

That’s now being reversed, in a move set to have implications for retailers selling both online and offline. The number of people visiting shops has steadily increased since April. The latest figures, out yesterday from Springboard suggested that footfall rose by 2.4% last week, to September 19, compared to the previous week, rising by 5.2% on high streets, but declining in shopping centres (-0.8%) and retail parks (-0.3%), in a pattern that suggests shoppers had been returning to work – and to normal. Footfall was also up in central London (+6%) – an area that had been hit as office workers stayed away, but had more recently started to see an uptick in visitor numbers. But footfall is still well down compared to a year ago across locations (-28.7%), and at high streets (-34.3%), retail parks (12.5%) and shopping centres (-32.6%) alike. Now that workers are once more being asked to stay at home, and for as long as six months, visitor numbers are likely to decline, especially in central London, in cities and on high streets. Retail parks, however, may benefit as online shoppers tend to use them to collect or return orders. 

Milan Pandya, business advisory partner at tax and advisory firm Blick Rothenberg says the news that office workers should stay at home will be a “hammer blow” for retail businesses, as well as those in hospitality and leisure.

He said: “Encouraging people to work from home and stay out of the town centres will be a final hammer blow rendering their business unviable. For them working from home is simply not an option.

“Following the Government’s announcement of further restrictions including the revised message that those who can do so should work from home and may need to do so for a period of at least six months it is imperative that the support measures introduced by the Chancellor are also extended, otherwise businesses will suffer and unemployment will rise.”

Pandya says that schemes enabling furlough, VAT and other tax deferrals, and lending via the CBILs scheme should all now be extended. “The alternative will undoubtedly be mass unemployment, which will particularly hit 16 to 24 year olds and potentially risk a lost generation,” he said. 

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company, said: “While we agree that the safety of our colleagues and customers must come first and acknowledge that office workers may now stay away from the centre of London, the West End remains very much open for business. We would encourage Londoners to enjoy the shops, restaurants and attractions that remain eager to host them in the West End, but to do so safely and responsibly.

“We must focus on keeping people safe at this uncertain time, but we must also do all that we can to support the thousands of retail and leisure jobs in London, with one in ten Londoners working in the West End. We must also ensure that – when this pandemic passes, which it will – we have a functioning and vibrant West End to come back to.”

The changes are likely to mean that shoppers do more of their shopping online, says Hayley-Jayne Cone, chief customer officer at remote solutions specialist JRNI. She says now is the time for retailers to act to make their shops more flexible in response, as more customers are likely to want to buy via the internet. “The new laws announced today will alter the retail landscape once again and retailers need to be prepared and able to adapt quickly,” she said. “Having the right technology in place provides a major advantage over competitors in fast-evolving environments. Those retailers that are able to offer virtual shopping experiences or limit the people in store through virtual queuing slots, automated footfall management or kerbside click and collect are the ones that will be able to respond quickly at the push of a button.  Combining these with dedicated in-store pre-booked appointments that give time to clean and quarantine items before the next customer will ensure that retailer stays ahead of the game and wins customer confidence and loyalty, whilst ensuring compliance with the changing laws.

“Now more than ever is the critical time to connect with customers in new and inventive ways. The social distancing, queuing and hygiene laws on shopping in-store will encourage consumers to turn even more to digital and reduced-contact ways of shopping, and retailers will need to accelerate their digital transformation. But retailers have to do more than just shift to an online model — they will also need to be able to replicate the seamless shopping experience that customers crave.  There was already a massive shift to online before Covid-19 and I am absolutely certain that will continue.  Another lockdown or any more in-store restrictions will make it happen faster and with greater decisiveness.  Bricks-and-mortar won’t go away entirely, but the retailers focusing on this will need to think in more innovative ways to keep themselves both relevant and ahead of the competition.”


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