Life after lockdown: a socially distanced high street?

By Sophie Sadler, Account Manager

As the UK nears the end of week seven in lockdown, attention turns to Number 10 and an anticipated announcement this weekend outlining the framework of the country’s exit plan. In particular, the nation’s retailers will be hoping for guidance to enable them to reopen their doors, with 69% of non-food retailers “significantly” impact by the virus.

However, with scientists warning that social distancing measures of some kind are looking likely to remain in place for the next few months at least, how will the high street need to adapt, and what kind of changes can we expect to see?

Maintaining employee and consumer trust will be paramount to ensuring brand loyalty and custom on the high street, especially with competition from the comparative convenience and safety of online shopping higher than ever before. Retailers that are seen to have robust procedures and policies in place to ensure the safety of all, and those who offer a customer-centric experience focusing on the personal touches that online retail therapy cannot deliver, will be viewed most favourably.

In the first instance, it’s likely that we’ll see many following supermarkets’ lead, with strict social distancing measures and limits on the number of customers in-store at any one time. In the US, we have seen many big retailers ban customers from inside shops altogether, opting for a ‘click and collect’ style system, where the customer parks up while a retail worker brings their order out to them. While some shops in the UK were beginning to introduce these measures prior to the pandemic, it’s likely that we’ll see a scaling up of this beyond supermarket and DIY stores.

For retailers, this opens a Pandora’s Box of new considerations, with stores fulfilling the role of an end-of-supply-chain distribution centre in this scenario, rather than offering the immersive retail experience that has been the focus of recent years. The role of a retail worker will become more labour intensive, so more employees may be needed with a different set of skills.

Beyond this, we’ll see retailers amending their policies and procedures to consider the practicalities of operating in a pandemic. Robust health and safety has always been an important consideration for shops, but never before has it been so critical. To build and maintain trust, retailers will need to ensure they have measures in place which not only safeguard their employees, but also their customers. For example, increasing time allocated to deep cleaning – and perhaps closing mid-shift to do so – and tracking which employees work together for potential contact tracing, in tandem with reconsidering their sick policies to encourage workers to remain home if they feel unwell, will all be important considerations.

Communication will be key, and retailers need to be confident in the technology and channels they have in place in order to be able to deliver clear and concise information to employees as and when guidance is released, enabling them to comply with any new rules.

With so much still uncertain, looking to the future, what is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic and its undeniable fallout will leave long-lasting marks on the retail industry. For brands currently without any online channels – such as fast fashion favourite Primark – the pressure is sure to be on to review their digital transformation strategies and attitudes by way of necessity.