Eva Pascoe | Digital Retailer

Originally on Retail Week

The question everyone is asking now, as the country is locked down, is when normality will resume and even to what extent it is possible to bring back ‘retail as usual’.

I’m a lockdown veteran – martial law in Poland in 1981 and the fallout from Chernobyl – and my view is that, although coronavirus has brought pain and suffering, there is also a unique opportunity to evaluate what is good for business and good for people.

It is unlikely that things will return exactly to how they were before. Take offices – will they make a comeback or will the fact that people have been working from home very productively change work dynamics?

Back in 2018, I ventured a prediction that 80% of physical retail will be gone in five years

If offices do go the way of the dodo, the roles of central London, cities and big high streets will need to be reimagined.

Back in 2018, when we published The Grimsey Review 2, I ventured a prediction that 80% of physical retail will be gone in five years.

My co-writers thought I was being facetious or had had too much wine. Little did we know that coronavirus would speed up the process, shutting down more than 90% of high street stores, including coffee shops, with only grocers and pharmacies surviving the onslaught.

Just as the government has a five-point plan – even if few seem very sure of the details – so the retail industry should develop its own to manage the move out of lockdown.

To support the government’s efforts on an exit strategy, we need a Retail Comeback Taskforce.

Despite what Google and our government are telling us, there is no app for Covid-19. I have worked on footfall for high streets for nearly a decade and the gaps in hardware, software and acceptance rates for track-and-trace apps are just too big to bridge in a short (or even medium) timeframe.

For the next 18 months, retailers have to assume that everyone – staff and shoppers alike – are non-symptomatic carriers, so we will need full coronavirus protocols to mitigate risks. We may need scheduling apps for appointments to avoid queues caused by social distancing.

Cleaning and social tracing need to be standardised and agreed by retail unions, otherwise it will be start-and-stop because unions (rightly) will fight openings brand by brand and store by store.

Should cash never be taken ever again to minimise risks of infection through coins or banknotes?

Retail will need a government-appointed ‘retail tsar’ to coordinate this comeback. We need to develop standard safe shop design templates – for instance, taking central aisles down in stores to avoid crowding in the middle, or layouts like that of homewares specialist Flying Tiger Copenhagen so that one person at a time moves alongside the shelves.

Should cash never be taken ever again to minimise risks of infection through coins or banknotes?

I would also throw the oversight of transport in London under the retail tsar, because the mayor’s decision making so far and cutting of train numbers have increased risks unacceptably.

Phased exit

We will need a phased exit from lockdown, prioritising local stores first, to test and pilot what works. They will need glass partitions to protect staff from the virus (a cheap and quick fix), already implemented in European pharmacies.

Pubs and restaurants are not likely to come back for a long time – they are not suited to social distancing

Then we should look at medium-sized shops and finally large stores – assuming customers are still interested in travelling to the centre of towns.

Pubs and restaurants are not likely to come back for a long time – they are not suited to social distancing, especially after punters have downed a few beers. Hairdressers, nail technicians and beauty salons will go as well – too much physical contact and close breathing.

The bottom line is that we will need to keep stores coronavirus-free, gain trust and show customers that they will be safe, with agreed PPE protocols and certified chemicals that are safe to use.

Only if shoppers see safe procedures in stores will they come back to the physical environment. Otherwise, Amazon will eat our high streets for lunch.

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