UK businesses are reopening to a sense of cautious optimism

The pandemic was a boon for online retail, and a disaster for brick-and-mortar shops.
The pandemic was a boon for online retail, and a disaster for brick-and-mortar shops.
Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
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The last time many UK consumers went shopping in a brick-and-mortar store was 12 weeks ago, when the government shut down non-essential businesses in an effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday (June 15), officials gave many of these stores the green light to reopen their doors, albeit with protective measures in place, like limiting the number of customers allowed inside at one time.

The Covid-19 shutdown has hit retailers particularly hard. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), retail sales fell by 18.1% in April from the previous month, after dropping 5.2% in March from February. Department stores were the hardest-hit—High Street giant Debenhams filed for protection from creditors under UK insolvency rules, for example. Clothing, textile, and footwear stores were also battered, with a quarter of them reporting no sales in April.

The next few weeks will show how willing consumers are to tolerate the risk of exposure to the virus in order to start buying things again. Without a sharp rise in consumer demand, many retail shops will not make it to the end of the year. Some have already permanently closed their doors. In the five first months of 2020, some 1,500 stores have closed in the UK, resulting in the layoff of about 40,000 employees, according to the Center for Retail Research reports.

Now that some of the restrictions of lockdown have lifted, Britons seem eager to shop. According to data firm Springboard, traffic across England’s high streets, retail parks, and shopping centers was about 40% higher Monday than it was on the same day last week. Long queues could be seen outside of retailers like Zara and Primark in major UK cities, and some customers reportedly waited in line overnight to be allowed in first.

On Marylebone High Street in central London, many business owners opening their doors for the first time today were cautiously optimistic. “It’s definitely good to have the doors open again, to be taking cash through the tills,” said James Thornington, a bookseller at the popular shop Daunt Books.

Anna Cica, the manager of shoe shop Mascaró, said she was happy to be back and hopeful that business would pick up in the coming weeks. “We had lots of our regular customers coming in and they are happy to be here,” she said.

But Anna Zalewska, a salesperson for clothing store Alila, said she had only seen one customer, while Michail Chruslicki, manager of the Sirplus clothing store, said that only a handful of people stepped into his store and none bought anything. “It’s not business as usual, but we’re picking up slowly,” he said.

All retailers along Marylebone High Street in London mentioned the evident dearth of tourists. Many shops were still closed, with some sporting signs announcing delayed re-openings. Others were permanently shut.