These are unprecedented times for UK retail. As we approach the last seven weeks of the key Christmas trading quarter, the Government’s latest COVID-19 directive last week means that all ‘non-essential’ retailers across England are now closed and can’t re-open until at least early December. In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland a raft of different restrictions is impacting retailers, whether they are classified as ‘essential’ or not.

This comes on top of the hugely turbulent few months earlier in 2020 for the retail sector, when all ‘non-essential’ retailers across the UK were forced to close between the end of March and mid-June, as the first ‘wave’ of COVID-19 swept through the country.

However, both these retail ‘lockdowns’, for the retail sector in England at least, have something in common – very little advance warning of the action being taken by Government and what might appear to be very last-minute, and seemingly almost arbitrary regulations that retailers are required by law to implement overnight.

The ‘last minute’ aspect could possibly be excused, given the fast-moving change in infection and transmission rates of coronavirus across different regions of the country and the need for Government to strike a pragmatic balance between health and the economy (lives and livelihoods)

What is inexcusable (particularly given the clear predictions from many virologists of a current second ‘wave’ happening towards the end of the year) is the lack of clarity in the communication of these latest retail regulations and the resulting confusion amongst both retail organisations, store managers and staff and of course shoppers about how they should be implemented.

Given all the problems and confusion that arose last March, not to mentioned the highly publicised ‘U-turn’ in Wales a few days after they went into their ‘firebreak’ just over two weeks ago on this very topic, it’s hard to believe that whilst ‘non-essential’ retailers in England were ordered to close from Thursday 5 November, the detailed regulations from Government around what the sale of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ products meant in practice was not actually published until a day later!

The impact on many major retailers, such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Sainsburys is quite significant as they often have stores with different layouts. So, whilst they can continue to sell ‘non- essential’ products alongside their food ranges if they are on the same floor, they can’t sell ‘non-essential’ products if these are on a different or separate floor.

There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, science behind these regulations. Indeed, it might be argued that allowing customers access to all parts of a large store on different floors would help reduce congestion and aid social distancing.

This delayed guidance from Government means many of the retailers still able to trade during lockdown have now been required to block access for their customers to some parts of their stores, but not in all locations.

For example, my nearest large Tesco Extra store sells grocery on the ground floor and a wide range on clothing, electrical, homeware, stationery, books, and entertainment products on a separate mezzanine floor. So currently this ‘non-food’ floor is closed although just two miles away another Tesco Extra store  (which happens to be on one floor only) can continue to offer their customers access to all ranges, whether food or non-foods.

This is not of course the fault of Tesco, or any other retailer desperately trying to interpret the latest rules, but the Government bringing in regulations that are inconsistent and arbitrary and appear to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the complexities of the retail sector.

That said, we are where we are and clearly the real winners are now likely to be online retailers, particularly of course Amazon – over the remainder of November at least. This also coincides with the annual ‘Black Friday’ shopping festival which although traditionally takes place over the last weekend of the month, has already been extended over much of November by most retailers.

What happens in December all depends on and what the specific rules are for retail after the current ‘lockdown 2.0’ ends in England on 2 December. If shoppers are allowed to return to the High Street, then, with almost three weeks left before Christmas, I would predict an unprecedented ‘bounce back’ with shoppers desperate to experience at least some of their usual pre-Christmas shopping experience. However, given that many might by then have already chosen to buy early (and online) during November, the actual level of spend, if not footfall, may be supressed.

On the other hand, if the current restrictions fail to reduce infection levels, and so in December much of the country remains under strict restrictions about how and where they can shop, then there will be (an equally unprecedented) last minute rush to online which will completely overwhelm current online logistics and delivery capacity. Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be interesting!


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Clarence Choe