In his latest blog post, Chair of STP and Professor of Retail Studies at the University of Stirling, Leigh Sparks, reflects on the phased re-opening of retail and related issues. 

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Three months on and the great unlocking has begun in earnest.  No more testing your eyesight, it’s now about testing your bank balance – in Northern Ireland and England to begin with, Wales today and then Scotland.  “Non-essential” stores are now open for business, but certainly not in a pre-COVID form.

Northern Ireland began the move with re-opening on Friday, 12th June; England followed suit on Monday, 15th June Wales starts today, the 22nd June and Scotland will be a week today (29th June).  This is begining to feel like a very different phase of the pandemic and something akin to trying to get back to normal.

And yet, it is not, nor should it be.  Where we are now is a very different place from early 2020 and what we then took for granted was “normal”.  For a start, the UK has one of the highest death rates of any country in the world and the over 60,000 people who have died from this need to have their deaths explained.  There should be no consideration of things being normal until we have held to account those responsible for our failings, and we have stopped the pointless deaths.

Secondly, the sense of ‘return to normal’ by ‘going shopping’ suggests that the world in early 2020 was a fair and good one, and that things have not been changed during lockdown.  They have.  We have re-discovered community but have also had to confront the inequalities that COVID has exposed in its impact and the differential experiences it has created.  We can not simply return to previous ways as though nothing should alter; things must change.

There can be no doubt that retailing has suffered; the data is absolutely clear.  But in going back to shop, we need to consider very carefully what it is we want our consumption to support.  Retailers need the support of consumers, but it can not be unthinking.  Support those good businesses who did the right things by suppliers and employees over the last three months.  Support local and independent, small retailers who need every penny to survive and who put back to the local economy through their actions.  Support the local towns and high streets who provide more equitable and more sustainable places. Support the local producers and retailers who provided a lifeline during the lockdown (and in the case of the former are still not getting their “normal” markets back).

At this point retailers are nervously looking for how consumers will react to the new shopping experience.  Will there be a honeymoon period or a sustained return?  Will the experience (or the thought of it) put off prospective consumers?  Will the relaxation lead to a large increase in COVID cases in a couple of weeks (as seen elsewhere)? We simply don’t know.

The early evidence from England is that footfall is down on last year, but surely this is only to be expected? We have lived through a major national trauma, and are still in the throes of a pandemic. Not all shops and other facilities are open (cafes, restuarants and public toilets being key components), the shopping experience is a very changed one, and many still lack confidence and experience in the new settings, with their new rules and constraints.

But however fast or slow it goes, this is but the first (of several phases) in the reopening and then resetting of our retail-consumer relationship (and the retail-landlord-property relationship). We are only at the beginning of this and those who see the re-opening of shops as an end to a situation or process, are going to be mistaken. There is much to be done to get these relationships to where they need to be for a sustainable future.

Scotland has taken a more risk averse and cautious path on many things through the pandemic. The siren calls to be “more ambitious” are very much at odds with the approach that produced the realities of the lower R number and the death rates in Scotland as opposed to many parts of England. There is a different calculus here between economics and deaths and the risks of a re-emergence of the virus generally or in a second wave. This pace is tough, especially for the retail and other businesses so adversely affected, but the long-term need is for consumers to have confidence in retailers’ and their own safe shopping. Rushing this for what may prove to be short-term relief may not be the success that many think.

Source: Stirling Retail

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