LONDON — Long lines stretched along streets across England as shops selling items considered as nonessential during the coronavirus pandemic, such as sneakers and toys, welcomed customers on Monday for the first time since the U.K. was put into lockdown in late March.
Starved of the retail experience for the best part of three months, shoppers generally appeared to abide by the social distancing requirement to stay two meters (6-1/2 feet) apart as they awaited their turn to enter the stores.
Not everywhere, though — pushing and shoving was evident at the NikeTown store on Oxford Street, London’s world-famous shopping mecca, at its reopening.
For friends Dionne Sumner and Olivia Copeland, both 25, it was a far more orderly experience when they waited to get into their local budget clothes retailer Primark in Liverpool. Arriving at the store at 8:30 a.m., they queued for about 15 minutes before getting in.
“This has been planned, we’ve been really missing it,” Copeland said after spending more than $250. “It is nice to get back out, it’s better than being stuck in the house.”
Monday’s reopening of shops, from department stores to booksellers and electronic retailers, only applies to England. Scotland and Wales are taking a more tentative approach to the easing of the coronavirus restrictions. Northern Ireland’s stores reopened last week. England also saw zoos, safari parks and drive-in cinemas reopen on Monday.
The new shopping experience is anything but normal, though.
Shops are limiting numbers and are providing hand sanitizers at the door as well as creating one-way traffic systems inside. Plastic screens protect workers from shoppers at payment counters and some shops will only take cards, not cash. At the Apple store on Regent Street in central London, staff checked customers’ temperatures and insisted upon face coverings.
Roger Shakles, managing director of Sewcraft, a small haberdashery shop in the town of Swindon, said people have to sanitize their hands before entering.
“We’re a very tactile shop, people have to feel and touch to get an idea of what they’re buying,” he said.
Not all shops in England are reopening. Many say the social distancing guidelines are just too difficult and are urging the British government to reduce the 2-meter requirement.
Critics have also accused the government of being too hasty given still-high levels of daily coronavirus infections. Though the country’s daily virus-related death rates have fallen to below those seen before the lockdown, there are worries of a second spike. The U.K., as a whole, has recorded 41,698 coronavirus-related deaths, the third highest in the world behind the United States and Brazil.
Customers are being encouraged to “be sensible” as the government seeks to reopen the economy “gradually and carefully.” Figures last week showed that the U.K. economy shrank by 20% in April alone.
Despite the reopening, footfall is not expected to come anywhere near levels pre-lockdown.
At London’s Oxford Street, normally teeming with shoppers crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, businesses have installed scores of signs to ensure social distancing. Some sidewalks have been widened and extra bike stations were put up to encourage shoppers to travel there without using the city’s Underground subway.
With virtually no tourists in town, London’s entire West End shopping and theater district is expected to see just 10% to 15% of its normal customers this week. International tourists now face a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Britain.
Linda Pilkington, who owns a high-end perfume boutique off London’s designer and jewellery hub of Bond Street, says the shopping experience will inevitably be dulled because restaurants, theaters and other entertainment facilities remain closed. She expects an extremely slow transition to a new normal.
“People like the social side of shopping. When you hit Bond Street and all the grand shops, it’s an exciting event,” she said. “All those people coming to London for a show, making a weekend of it, that won’t be there. It’s just not going to be the same.”
Pilkington’s tiny shop, Ormonde Jayne, will only let one customer in at a time. Shoppers will be encouraged to sanitize their hands and the whole store needs to be wiped down every time a shopper leaves.
Browsing the aisles maybe a welcome change from scrolling online, though touching merchandise may be discouraged and many changing rooms will be off-limits.
John Lewis, a popular British department store with outlets around the country, is hoping to turn the lower shopper numbers into an advantage.
“I’m hopeful that, while the overall atmosphere will feel a bit different to them, what they’ll actually find is a kind of pleasant surprise that it’s calm, it’s pleasant, it’s well ordered,” said Andrew Murphy, director of operations. “But it’s also still got the real advantage of the physical shopping experience and the things that you can’t do online.”
To lure wary shoppers back, the upscale department store Selfridges has lined up street performers to entertain anyone queuing, while DJs will play music inside to liven things up. Selfridges said the last time it had to close its doors was in 1941 when it was hit by a bomb during World War II.
Analysts say the pandemic has accelerated a shift to online shopping, not least because many businesses need to cut rental costs to survive. Paul Martin, U.K. head of retail at KPMG, believes “consumers have formed new habits that will see the online channel continue to be more prominent going forward.”
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