Long lines stretched along streets and snaked around blocks across England as shops selling fashion, toys and other nonessential items welcomed customers on Monday for the first time since the U.K. was put into lockdown in late March.
Starved of the retail experience for the best part of three months, shoppers appeared to be taking the social distancing requirement to stay two meters (6-1/2 feet) apart in stride as they awaited their turn to enter the stores.
Friends Dionne Sumner and Olivia Copeland, both 25, couldn’t wait to get to their local budget clothes retailer Primark in Liverpool. Arriving at the store at 8:30 a.m., they queued for about 15 minutes before getting in.
“This has been planned, we’ve been really missing it,” Copeland said after spending more than 200 pounds ($250). “It is nice to get back out, it’s better than being stuck in the house.”
Monday’s reopening of shops, from department stores to booksellers and electronic retailers, only applies to England. Scotland and Wales are taking a more tentative approach to the easing of the coronavirus restrictions. Northern Ireland’s stores reopened last week. England also saw zoos, safari parks and drive-in cinemas reopen on Monday.
For many, the new shopping experience is likely to be strange.
Shops are limiting numbers and are providing hand sanitizers at the door as well as creating one-way traffic systems inside. Plastic screens protect workers from shoppers at payment counters and some shops will only take cards, not cash. At the Apple store on Regent Street in central London, staff checked customers’ temperatures and insisted they must wear face coverings.
Not all shops in England are reopening. Many say the social distancing guidelines are just too difficult and are urging the British government to reduce the 2-meter requirement.
Critics have also accused the government of being too hasty in reopening shops given still-high levels of daily coronavirus infections. Though the country’s daily virus-related death rates have fallen to below the levels seen before the lockdown, there are worries of a second spike. The U.K., as a whole, has recorded nearly 41,698 coronavirus-related deaths, the third highest in the world behind the United States and Brazil.
Customers are being encouraged to “be sensible” in their approach, as the government seeks to reopen the economy “gradually and carefully.” Figures last week showed that the U.K. economy shrank by 20% in April alone.
Despite the reopening of many shops, footfall is not expected to come anywhere near levels pre-lockdown.
At London’s Oxford Street, normally teaming 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 theater district is expected to see just 10% to 15% 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.
Linda Pilkington, who owns a high-end perfume boutique off London’s Bond Street, renowned for its designer and jewellery shops, says the pleasure of going shopping for many customers is going to be dulled because restaurants, theaters 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.
Browsing the aisles will be a welcome change from scrolling online, though touching merchandise may be discouraged and many changing rooms will be off-limits.
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.”
To lure wary shoppers back, the upscale department store Selfridges has lined up street performers to entertain anyone queuing, while DJs will play music inside to liven things up. Selfridges said the last time it had to close its doors was during World War II 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.”
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