Anger on the British high street as festive cheer turns to fear for small shops

Anger on the British high street as festive cheer turns to fear for small shops

“They have absolutely crucified us,” says Steve Holden, when asked what the month-long high street lockdown in England means for his family’s three Essex gift shops.

“We have spent thousands of pounds on Christmas stock and it is crucial we sell it in November and December, which is our busiest time of year,” he said. “Without that money coming in we can’t get through January and February when the high street is dead.”

The new lockdown has forced about 363,000 specialist shops to temporarily close, a situation that means retailers will now miss what are traditionally among the biggest sales weeks of the year.

The British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) says its members are upset that high-street lockdown rules have not created a level playing field. Its members fear customers will do all their Christmas shopping in stores that are considered essential such as supermarkets, which are allowed to stay open, not forgetting online marketplaces such as Amazon, leaving them with heavy losses.

Andrew Goodacre, the Bira chief executive, urged shoppers “not to panic and buy everything now”.

“Your favourite shop will reopen, so remember why it is your favourite shop and use it, because it needs you now more than ever,” he said.

Goodacre added that there are good independent stores that “through no fault of their own could be forced out of business” by a poor Christmas, a period which usually sustain shops through the rest of the year. “Even though it’s only four weeks compared with 13 weeks in the summer, this lockdown could do more damage because of the loss of sales this month, and possibly in December if everyone does their shopping early.”

The pandemic has resulted in big changes in shopping behaviour, with online sales booming, a shift that has accelerated the pace of high street closures and job losses. Some analysts think another 18,000 premises could be left empty in 2020, almost double the number in 2019, as the coronavirus pandemic hammers retailers, restaurants and leisure businesses.

During the earlier lockdown independents adapted by offering services such as personal shopping and click and collect. New business channels have also emerged to help small businesses cope, including the website Bookshop that allows readers to buy online while supporting their local independent bookseller.

The lockdown has seen the big retail chains focus their energies on running their websites and collection services amid fears of a sales bottleneck in December. John Lewis is redeploying thousands of department store staff to its sister chain Waitrose, and potentially even to its distribution centres, as it prepares for another surge in online orders.

Andrew Murphy, group operations director, said that John Lewis’s recent strong sales showed customers had already begun to do their Christmas shopping. “People are making the assumption they need to accelerate all their plans,” he said. “The more that happens, the more able retailers will be to manage demand across the UK.”

John Lewis is offering a click-and-collect service from its closed department stores, as well in Waitrose – a network of collection points that Murphy said would make “a big difference” during the lockdown.

With its stores closed, the Currys PC World chain said it will have 3,000 staff working on its virtual personal shopping service, assisting shoppers who are trying to choose the most suitable game console, tablet or mobile phone. It is also offering “zero contact” collections, where shoppers can have their purchases placed in the boot of their car.

Mark Allsop, chief operating officer at the chain’s owner Dixons, said that it did not anticipate furloughing as many staff during this lockdown as the last as they would be organising online orders, selling via video conference or helping with phone queries. The setup would help to spread out demand, he said: “The last thing we want is condensed periods of time when people can shop. It creates a pinch point in demand.”