Grand reopening: retailers ready for return of shoppers

Grand reopening: retailers ready for return of shoppers

At Hamleys they are unboxing the teddies, vacuuming the Frozen castle and practising dance routines. John Lewis is cleaning its fitting rooms and beauty counters, while Debenhams is preparing for its closing down sale.

After at least 15 weeks of lockdown – more in many parts of the UK – high streets are preparing to reopen on Monday. Retailers in England and Wales are hoping to lure shoppers away from the internet and out of their homes with entertainment, children’s parties, services such as personal styling advice for adults and professional shoe fitting for children – and some hefty discounts.

For the first time in a year, after a change in government Covid-19 guidelines, retailers will be able to open fitting rooms and advise on applying beauty treatments.

Tony Wheeler, the head of the Peter Jones branch of John Lewis on Sloane Square in central London, says it has taken about four weeks to prepare to reopen the store, which closed its doors on 19 December. The team of 600 staff, most of whom have been working in the group’s Waitrose supermarkets or dealing with customers online, have all been retrained in the latest safety measures and product information while cleaning down shelves and putting out fresh product.

“The shop was in a time warp with Christmas stuff and the preparations for the [January] sale. During the lockdown we sent a lot of stock to support online sales, so it was like a swarm of locusts had been through,” he says. “Staff are genuinely excited and delighted at having customers back for face-to-face interaction.”

While the final closure of chains including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, J Crew, Oasis, Warehouse and Laura Ashley, as well as some Debenhams, John Lewis, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer stores, will leave big gaps in town centres and shopping malls, those stores reopening their doors believe British shoppers are keen to hit the streets again.

Pippa Wicks, an executive director at John Lewis – which has 34 outlets after closing 16 in the past year – is expecting queues outside stores. “People are going to be excited to come back. When we reopened before we saw a lot of emotion. We are an important part of people lives if they have got a store nearby.”

She expects the fashion floors, children’s footwear department and beauty counters to be the busiest, but is also hopeful that shoppers will be keen to make more considered purchases on big-ticket items such as sofas, beds and fridges now that they can try them out in the shop.

In the past few weeks the group has seen a surge in sales of dresses, handbags and makeup online – up 200%, 100% and 50% respectively – as shoppers prepare for a more social time once more.

John Lewis has used the closure time to rejig some stores, bringing in new brands based on what has sold well online. It is also braced for more price-conscious shoppers, with a new range of home and baby items being sold under the Anyday brand – with prices 20% cheaper than its other ranges.

Wicks says some shoppers will be more price conscious with concerns about the economy, but she also expects that some people will have more spare cash to spend, having not spent on travelling to work or gone on holiday for months. “I think there will be a bit of an uplift over the summer,” she says.

Sumeet Yadav, the chief executive of Hamleys, the world’s oldest toy shop, also thinks shoppers will be keen to return to stores and has planned a menu of activities including a Pokémon treasure hunt, an appearance by Spider-Man and Harry Potter wand training. Yadav says the store has also adapted activities – such as its Marvin’s Magic show – so that entertainment can be enjoyed in a more socially distanced way.

“Our big focus is on giving a warm family welcome back with a lot of activities. We have thought carefully about how to make kids feel life is getting back to normal. Sales have been tough because our stores have been shut, but it’s also been a time to reflect and invest and prepare for our future growth,” he says.

Wicks reckons it could take 18 months for high streets and shopping malls to fully recover, assuming there are no further lockdowns to control the virus. She says she believes city centre stores will take longer to bounce back than will those on retail parks or out of town because of the switch towards working from home and the decline in tourism as a result of restraints on international travel.

With habits changing, John Lewis is putting more goods in Waitrose stores and is also aiming to open at least one or two small neighbourhood outlets, with cafes and seasonal products, by the end of the year.

“Neighbourhoods could see a new lease of life,” she says. “People are wanting to shop more locally, for convenience and to support local businesses. There could be positive aspects for those high streets. They may serve a different function. What’s in those stores on the high street is likely to change.”

While some established chains are disappearing, others are taking advantage of the space that has become available and the resultant dive in rents to add new stores or launch in the UK.

At the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester, the closure of stores including Topshop, Burton, Karen Millen and Thorntons has made way for other brands. New stores in the complex include the Irish athleisure brand Gym+Coffee’s second UK outlet, a Polestar electric car showroom, the fast-growing noodle bar Chopstix, the online glasses brand Pop Specs and the first store for the Real Housewives of Cheshire star Seema Malhotra’s Forever Unique label.

The health and beauty retailer Superdrug is opening 15 stores this year, Kurt Geiger will open nine new stores on Monday, PureGym will launch 10 new gyms next week and Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group (formerly Sports Direct) is moving into a former Debenhams outlet in Wolverhampton, which has been divided to house an upmarket Flannels outlet, a Sports Direct shop and a Frasers department store.