Creativity will be key as retail shops reopen

Small, local shops have done proportionately better than big chains during lockdown, and will be loo

Small, local shops have done proportionately better than big chains during lockdown, and will be looking to build on this renewed loyalty Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Retailers need to get creative and think about the shopping experience to entice customers back, says Tim Barnes of Lovewell Blake.

Tim Barnes from Lovewell Blake Picture: Lovewell Blake

Tim Barnes from Lovewell Blake Picture: Lovewell Blake - Credit: Archant

As a wider cross-section of shops open from Monday for the first time since lockdown, some commentators are predicting that the Covid-19 crisis could spell the death knell for our high streets. But although there have already been some casualties – and there are sure to be more – reports of the death of retail are somewhat exaggerated.

The retail sector is important for East Anglia, and its performance will be a good barometer of the health of the wider economy. So how can retail businesses, and in particular smaller, independently-owned shops, defy the merchants of doom?

The crisis has certainly accelerated the growth of online shopping, and that trend is not about to go into reverse. Those retailers with an established online presence have been able to prosper, while others have found themselves playing catch-up. There will be few bricks-and-mortar shops which will thrive without some form of parallel online outlet, so this should be a priority for those not already in this space.

Many retailers have realised they need to do more than just ‘sell stuff’ if they are to compete with the internet giants; successful shops offer an experience beyond the mere shopping transaction, including customer events, in-store coffee shops and wine bars, book signings, fashion shows and the like. Those factors are an important component of the enjoyment a customer derives from shopping.

For the time being, many of these ideas will be out-of-bounds, so retailers are going to have to get creative. Reports of shops planning to offer entertainment for those queueing outside are a good example of this – particularly as the in-store experience, complete with Perspex screens, social distancing and face masks, is going to feel distinctly functional for the time being.

There will probably be an initial wave of demand from shoppers who have missed the retail experience, as we have seen at garden centres and DIY stores. Only time will tell whether that demand will outweigh lingering virus fears among the general public and practical considerations which make shopping more difficult, at least in the short term. An enduring challenge for retailers to overcome is enticing customers back.

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So businesses need to be careful of bringing all of their staff back from furlough immediately, until things settle and a clearer picture of business levels emerge. The ability to bring back furloughed workers part-time from July 1 offers extra flexibility, and employers should take advantage.

The good news is that small, local shops have done proportionately better than big chains. If they can build on this renewed loyalty, and be creative in how they offer a great shopping experience to their customers, there is no reason why retail cannot be an integral part of the much-needed economic recovery.