Retail therapy is still a world away in the post-lockdown era

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There was great anticipation about what shopping would be like when non-essential stores finally reopened their doors in England on Monday. It quickly became clear that we won’t get back to pre-pandemic retail therapy until all the fixtures of the high street are up and running again, from nail bars to cafes and restaurants.

A steady stream of consumers filled the main thoroughfare in Canterbury, an affluent town in Kent. That reflected the broader trend of a 42% increase from a week earlier in visits to all retail destinations in England by noon on Monday, according to data provider Springboard.

At the Fenwicks department store, one couple said they had come out for “a bit of normal.” But normality was in short supply. For a start, not all of the stores were open. Next Plc wasn’t due to open its doors to shoppers until today. Others, such as the large Debenhams department store, are now permanently closed.

But the most notable omission was the atmosphere that’s come to characterize British malls and main streets, provided by bustling coffee shops, food outlets and the like. Over the past five to 10 years, the functional aspect of shopping has migrated to the click of a mouse or tap of a smartphone. Going out to the mall or strolling the high street has become a leisure pursuit, especially as cafes and restaurant chains expanded to fill empty retail space.

With the U.K.’s gradual approach to easing lockdown, on-site dining is still prohibited. While some fast-food outlets, such as Five Guys, McDonald’s and Nando’s were open for takeaway, eating on the go is hardly conducive to a leisurely lunch out followed by window shopping and browsing the day away.

It’s too early to say whether that experience will return. After over-expanding five years ago, casual-dining joints hit a hard patch. When Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, consumers turned more cautious, sparking a wave of closures at the likes of Prezzo, Jamie’s Italian and Byron Hamburgers. It’s not clear how many restaurants will be able to survive a three-month shutdown followed by strict  social-distancing measures. Sticking to the two-meter rule could see many operating at 30-50% of their usual capacity, squeezing profits.

Other footfall drivers at shopping destinations include beauty outlets with trends such as false-eyelash bars growing in popularity alongside nail and hair salons. In Canterbury yesterday, these all remained closed. There were no bustling beauty counters with consultants spraying perfume or dispensing samples in the local Fenwicks and Boots. While digital tools could make up for some of what’s missing, there’s no substitute for actually putting a lipstick on your own skin to tell if you like the shade. If there’s little reason for visiting a physical beauty store, more sales will migrate online, making life even harder for the department stores.

All in all, with discounts of as much as 50% on handbags and 70% on fashion picks, walking through some stores felt like a ghostly Black Friday.

It could just be a question of time. As the U.S. reopened, shopping also felt lifeless at first until leisure outlets reopened bringing out more people with them. 

In England, in the meantime, retailers will have to rely on the strength of their product offerings. Although queues at Primark were modest in Canterbury, many people were carrying bulging bags from the discount fashion retailer, which doesn’t offer online shopping. And more expensive fashion chains may have to rely more on the social aspects of shopping.

Just how hard they may have to work became apparent on my return to Whitstable in the late afternoon. The only queue was outside the fish-and-chip shop even though many of the vibrant independent shops had reopened their doors.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

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