Social distancing goes out the window on the road to retail revival

A scrum of shoppers outside NikeTown formed as the store prepared to reopen on Monday morning, with reports of customers pushing and shoving each other in a bid to be first through the doors.

Social distancing was enforced at Selfridges by encouraging shoppers to queue for escalators, but the department store’s policy of asking customers not to touch items unless they intended to buy them appeared to confuse some shoppers.

Many retailers have chosen to keep fitting rooms closed for the foreseeable future, but this did not deter some customers who tried on hats and other items on the shop floor. 

Business Secretary Alok Sharma has warned that retailers risk facing enforcement action if they fail to adhere to safety guidance.

But Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses in central London, said the onus was not just on retailers to comply with government guidelines. 

“We have to give the great British public and our shoppers that self responsibility,” he said. “We couldn’t be clear with the guidance and the Government couldn’t be clearer. There’s a lot of measures in place and sanitisation – people will learn to manage in a different environment.”

While scenes of long queues outside shops gave the illusion of a nation ready to get back to their local high street, many retailers were far from doing a roaring trade on Monday.

About 90pc of retailers in London’s West End reopened, but visitor numbers were depressed, with the New West End Company predicting footfall was down by as much as 75pc compared with pre-crisis levels. 

Many major chains remained boarded up, as some retailers planned a staggered reopening. The big department stores – Debenhams, John Lewis and House of Fraser – were among those that did not reopen on Monday. Despite opening two stores on Monday and more later this week, the Partnership has not yet said when its flagship outlet will welcome customers back.

One Selfridges’ employee working on a homewares concession was heard telling a colleague he had served just one customer by 1.30pm, adding: “They didn’t even spend much.”

Feedback from shopkeepers further afield was mixed. Oliver Bonas, the quirky gift and homewares chain, opened half of its 80 sites on Monday.

“We have been closely watching sales,” said Gina Coladangelo, its marketing director.  “At two minutes past ten, in our Leamington Spa store we sold a piece of furniture. Somebody had been eyeing it up for weeks. That got us quite buoyant because it’s been a tough 12 weeks. 

“In local high streets people are keen to support their local communities. It’s been much harder in the train station stores, which is hardly surprising given that people are still discouraged from taking public transport.”

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