COVID-secure and the retail sector

8th June 2020

Whilst the UK government is still advising businesses and workplaces to ‘make every reasonable’ effort to keep home-working as a priority, the ability to work from home is not available to all sectors.1  On 10th May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘actively encouraged’ those working in construction and manufacturing to go back to work, before announcing the entering into the second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic recovery on 28th May, allowing for the easing of restrictions and the reopening of non-essential shops; first on 1st June and then more on 15th June.2 3

Although without universal agreement, the government announced that they have been able to meet the five tests they laid out at the beginning of this pandemic and were therefore ready to begin reopening the economy through the gradual reopening of shops and schools. These tests were: not overwhelming the NHS; a sustained fall in deaths; reducing the rate of infections; ensuring PPE and test supplies can be met; and being confident that adjustments would not risk a second peak.4 Despite this, two members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), Sir Jeremy Farrar and Professor John Edmunds, raised concerns over the reopening of schools and shops when the number of new daily cases is still ‘relatively high’.5 Sir Jeremy Farrar elaborated on this view in a Twitter post in which he argued that the government’s Test, Trace and Isolate programme (TTI) has to be in place, fully working, and capable of dealing with any surge immediately. The programme would also have to be locally responsive and provide rapid results, with lower infection rates and trust in the programme a must before easing restrictions.6 A damning verdict, especially when taking into account that there have been predictions that TTI will not be fully operational until September.7

Further to this, a poll conducted by the Union GMB on 23rd May found that 60% of respondents were ‘uncomfortable about being pressured to return to the workplace’ and only 18% felt that returning would be safe.7 These findings are seemingly mirrored by those in manual work industries who have already been ‘actively encouraged’ by Boris Johnson to return to work, reportedly feeling as if they are being treated as ‘expendable’ in workplaces where physical distancing is impossible.8 There have also been complaints about the inadequacy of the government enforcement of new COVID-secure guidelines despite Boris Johnson giving the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) an extra £14 million to carry out its additional duties.9 With the self-admission from Martin Temple, Chair of the HSE, that they only do roughly 20,000 inspections a year out of 5.5 million duty holders due to lack of inspectors, Steve Tombs, writing for the Institute of Employment Rights, has worked out that the statistical probability of facing an inspection in any one year is 1 in 275, arguing that the HSE is an insufficient body to conduct COVID-secure inspections.10  In spite of these concerns and complaints the government has decided to go ahead with reopening schools, as well as opening up the retail sector, serving to reinforce the idea that home-working is a luxury only for professionals.11

Expectedly the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the retail industry hard with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimating that the current lock-down is costing retailers deemed ‘non-essential’ £1.8 billion a week in lost sales.12 Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson has been enthusiastic at the prospect of the reopening of shops, actively encouraging people to go out and spend in the hope that a surge in retail spending will deliver a bounce in the economy.13  Retail Economics analyst Richard Lim also expects shops to entice public spending in order to sell excess and out of season stock and ‘will have to discount heavily’ as has already been seen online by brands such as Superdry, French Connection and Next who are offering discounts up to 50%.14 However, this does raise the concern that the enticement of shoppers to the high street could result in increased infection rates.

 In anticipation of the reopening of non-essential shops, the British Chambers of Commerce conducted a survey between 13th and 15th May which found that 37% of respondents could fully restart operations by implementing government guidance and a further 45% responded that they would be able to partially restart.15 It is hoped that the reopening of shops on 15th June would follow the successful reopening of furniture stores which have utilised the use of customer limits, directional arrows, one way systems and copious amounts of hand sanitiser since 13th May. Expanding on the guidelines introduced in the supermarkets and furniture stores, the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers, alongside BRC, has announced further recommendations in order to ensure safety for both retail staff and customers. These recommendations include the installing of temporary barriers; clear signage detailing social distancing measures and expectations (including two-meter markings inside and out of the store); installing cleaning stations and protective panels for staff at the tills; and the encouragement for individual shopping and cashless payments.16 17 The consumer choice website Which? has pointed out that guidelines may vary between shop types, such as technology shops reducing demonstrations and increasing stock display rotation.18 It is also expected that dressing rooms will remain closed in clothing shops and John Lewis have already announced this will be their policy.19 20 However, the closure of dressing rooms could potentially result in an increase in clothing returns, with customers buying multiple sizes to try on at home.

The sign of things to come in the retail industry are becoming clearer due to a serious of announcements by companies detailing the new measures they intend to implement when stores reopen. Several stores have announced plans to increase stock rotation with Kurt Geiger taking tried on boots off the shop floor for 24 hours and books touched in Waterstones being quarantined for 72 hours, John Lewis will also be separating returned stock for 72 hours.21  Whilst these policies are indeed encouraging, it is questionable whether they will be consistently adhered to across all stores. In Boots a triage system will reportedly be set up in order to ‘meet the different needs of customers’, customer beauty consultations will continue using video chats. The store will also introduce aisle wardens to ensure social distancing is being observed, a measure which has also been seen in Ikea.22 Looking further ahead, Asda has announced that they expect social distancing to continue in one form or another for at least the rest of the year and have begun developing a ‘virtual queue’ app, allowing shoppers to wait in their cars rather than standing in a queue outside the shop. Elsewhere, Aldi is expected to introduce a new ‘traffic light’ system outside its doors, only letting customers in once the number of customers inside the store has reached a safe ‘green’ level’.23

It is obvious that the retail experience has changed drastically due to COVID-19, and will remain changed for some time, with the majority of stores having to adapt to new circumstances. Whilst the reopening of non-essential shops is a key indicator of society getting back to normal, as well as boosting the economy, it is essential that the health of staff and shoppers alike are the primary priority. Although shops appear to be taking the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions seriously, descent in the scientific community as to whether we are yet ready to ease restrictions has raised the question of whether easement is occurring too fast, unfortunately, only time will tell.