UK Retail Update: Return of the Pre-Christmas Queues

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Queueing customers Poundland West Sussex
Queueing customers Poundland West Sussex

Shoppers queued outside several stores including Poundland and H&M this weekend in southern England. Across the country all non-essential shops opened for the first time since the second lockdown last Wednesday. Many families were keen to enjoy some weekend retail therapy together in their favourite high street stores, for the first time after a month of restricted commercial activity. This has been due to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government ordering a second lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Car parks in most retail centres in Sussex and Hampshire were full and some had queues to enter. Men, women and children all headed into towns and cities happy to brave the extremely cold temperatures and hunt for Christmas presents and other items on their winter wish lists.

There was a festive atmosphere as the councils have already turned on the Christmas lights and buskers merrily accompanied the comparatively busy streets. However there are differences to the scene of the usual pre-Christmas rush this year. Everybody is following social distancing rules and keeping away from others that are not in their household or ‘bubble’. Mask wearing is compulsory, unless people are exempt for health reasons or they are under the age of 11.

There are too many people without masks.” complained a retired lady waiting outside the busy independent beauty boutique Lush.

In Chichester it was heartening to see so many folk wishing to spend their money locally after the city centre has suffered terribly in recent times. The pedestrianized streets make giving others enough space around you when walking along the old flagstones very convenient, compared to some other high streets with limited pavements. The medieval and Georgian architecture is a joy to experience in all seasons. Chichester looks particularly attractive with many windows and doors adorned with pretty wreaths and tiny strings of lights.

There are several empty shops and ‘gaps’ in the usual wide range of products and prices available to consumers in this affluent area of West Sussex. Retail brands that have closed in the last year or so include the big department store House of Fraser which was known locally as Army and Navy. This historic cornucopia had been a fixture for luxury goods impressively situated directly opposite the famous Gothic cathedral since World War II. Laura Ashley has gone and so has Monsoon and Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Oasis, Cath Kidson plus at least half a dozen other independent boutiques over the last 18 months. Some cafes have also not reopened after the first lockdown in March such as the once very popular Pret a Manger. (1)

This week there was great sadness in the textile industry as Arcadia group which is the parent company of TopShop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Evans and several other chains collapsed into administration. (2)

The department store Debenhams had 130 ‘anchor’ stores which featured as a cornerstone in many cities throughout the UK. Debenhams announced it is closing as it is unable to find a buyer. This classic destination for mid-range clothing and home stocks many of Arcadias brands in the form of concessions in its many stores. The tragic commercial closure of these iconic brands could lead to up to 25,000 workers losing their jobs. It was not the only department store group to collapse as Beales also confirmed it would cease trading after 139 years. (3) (4)

In England the marketplace for homeware and clothing sales has always been competitive. Now it more important than ever to be innovative, fashionable and desirable to young people who are influenced by what is happening on social media this week and who are looking to pick up the latest trends both online and in physical stores. There is no room for mediaocracy or lack of clear brand direction in any clothing store in the UK this winter.

Rates and rents have been unachievable for several retailers in the south east this year. The unexpected pressures of coronavirus and sudden lockdowns have disrupted supply chains. This has added extra financial pressure for company directors already dealing with the uncertainty of Brexit, a relatively weak pound and high property costs and taxes.

The ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is in sight in the form of a countrywide campaign to vaccinate nearly the whole nation. It is hoped the mass vaccination program will mean the end of the restrictions associated with Covid-19 by the summer of 2021. There are a few silver linings to this health crisis, that has had severe economic consequences for many businesses and individuals in our society.

Residents in Sussex are shopping locally and seeking out independent companies to support such as The Eternal Maker (fabric shop and haberdashers), Manuka (wholefoods haven and health food store), Drapers Yard (mix of pop up micro businesses enterprises), Lush (handmade beauty boutique) Montezumas (Chocolate retailer) and the Oxmarket (a centre of arts and crafts and gifts). The farmers markets are really popular in London and the south coast. Buying outdoors makes a lot of sense at present, as experts say it is more than 10 times less likely to catch Covid-19 in the fresh air.

High street shops which sell some essential goods like food and toiletries have done very well this year. This is compared to other sectors within the retail and leisure industry who have suffered unexpected closures. Many budget and pound stores have seen an increased footfall of customers, even though there has been many changes and logistical challenges throughout 2020. Boots and the other chemists have been in demand this year as residents avoid using NHS services unnecessarily and head out locally to pick up all their health care products. It makes sense to take supplements and focus on keeping the immune systems in top condition this year.

However restrictions on the number of patrons allowed within the building and into any selling showroom at one time, has limited the number of transactions that can be made. This is especially important during peak times in the trading day and will be leading to lower sales figures this season for some companies. This is a crucial factor for shops with lower price products where there is less margin is to be gained from each sale. Last month New Look; a fashion outfitters which has almost 500 stores, was narrowly saved from collapsing as landlords agreed to charge the trendy chain by a proportion of its turnover, to avoid unaffordable rents. (5)

Councils have issued guidance for retailers and advised managers that they should limit the number of people allowed per aisle. Traditionally ‘wandering around’ the shops and ‘discovering’ a potential new purchase has been part of the joy of shopping. The ‘one way systems’ introduced in nearly all premises prevent some extra impulse sales. The medical advice that “people should not stay in a shop for more than 15 minutes to avoid contracting a virus.” is essential but does not help struggling organisations. The British Medical Journal states that “The UK’s definition of a ‘close contact’ is 15 or more minutes within 2 metres of distance…used for its coronavirus track and trace system, should curb the spread of COVID-19 infection.” (6)

On the bright side it is possible to shop in some places at ‘off peak’ times until December 25th. Big chain stores such as Marks and Spencer, Next and John Lewis will be welcoming those looking for gifts with extended opening hours, in the run up to the holidays. Primark will be opening 24 hours in some stores to manage the flow of custom through its doors.

 

(1) ‘Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton owner goes into administration – your rights’ Steve Noworthy, MSE News, 4 December 2020 ‘Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton owner goes into administration’ Steve Noworthy, MSE News

(2) ‘25,000 jobs at risk as Debenhams closure follows Topshop collapse’ Hanna Ziady, CNN Business, 1 December 2020 ‘25,000 jobs at risk as Debenhams closure follows Topshop collapse’ Hanna Ziady, CNN

(3) ‘866 job cuts as Edinburgh Woollen Mill & Ponden Home stores fall into administration’ Eilas Johnson, Retail Gazette, 7 November 2020 ‘866 job cuts as Edinburgh Woollen Mill & Ponden Home stores fall into administration’ Eilas Johnson, Retail Gazette

(4) ‘List of shops that have collapsed in to administration in 2020 as UK lockdown hits high street’ Hannah Baker, Business Live – Retail & Consumer, 1 December 2020 ‘List of shops that have collapsed in to administration in 2020 as UK lockdown hits high street’ Hannah Baker, Business Live

(5) ‘New Look CVA challenged by landlords’ Jonathan Eley, Financial Times, 1 November 2020 ‘New Look CVA challenged by landlords’ Jonathan Eley, Financial Times

(6) ‘UK ‘close contact’ definition for track and trace should curb COVID-19 spread but many uninfected traced’ British Medical Journal (BMJ) 15 December 2020 ‘UK ‘close contact’ definition for track and trace should curb COVID-19 spread but many uninfected traced’ British Medical Journal

(7) ‘All the shops changing their opening hours after lockdown in England’ Heart radio news 24 November 2020 ‘All the shops changing their opening hours after lockdown in England’ Heart