Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has been a huge success, for which the chancellor deserves credit. Retailers should find ways to replicate it.

The 50% discount available through the dine-in subsidy initiative has proved a mouthwatering prospect for consumers. In its first week, it was used 10.5 million times, according to the Treasury. More than 83,000 restaurants took part, ranging from indies to fast-food giants such as McDonald’s.

Not only has it helped hard-pressed eateries, but it has also had another equally important benefit – drawing still-cautious consumers back into town centres and taking a few tentative steps towards restoring confidence.

Higher footfall and money through the tills, both of which Rishi’s dishes have provided, is what retailers need too. Some are recovering well from the disruption of lockdown but many, particularly in discretionary categories, are in desperate need of a boost to trade.

Hospitality and retail’s different operating models mean it would be difficult to simply replicate the scheme wholesale. In fact, to do so would be undesirable. While people are used to booking restaurant tables as standard, they expect to be able to simply walk into stores. 

But the last thing retailers would want is unmanageable crowds milling around outside and inside their shops, exposing staff and customers alike to possible infection. That’s why high-profile Sales have been pretty much off the agenda for most retailers since reopening.

“Perhaps retailers could distribute vouchers to shoppers at the till, enabling them to get money off on their next visit”

Surely, though, the industry, or at least some of its leading lights, could put together a tailored scheme of its own without government support? Maybe it could be Book a Bargain – the opportunity for shoppers to register online for store access at a designated time when various promotions will be available. That would help manage the volume of visitors.

Perhaps retailers could distribute vouchers to shoppers at the till, enabling them to get money off on their next visit, which would also even out when customers turn up. 

Maybe offers could be limited to certain categories, such as back-to-school. Maybe it could be a free cup of tea and a slice of cake on a future visit, helping to restore the tarnished experiential aspects of shopping. Maybe it could even be a discount on production of an Eat Out to Help Out receipt, rewarding shoppers doubly for visiting a high street or shopping mall.

Or, given people’s continued reluctance to use public transport, maybe the ‘bargain’ would be the suspension of parking meters at particular times – the times when shops are least busy would make sense, drawing trade at what normally might be downtime.

Or it might be something completely different, with the prime requirements that it be safe and simple. But the point is, something needs to be done.

It seems a long time ago now, but it was only a few months back that shopworkers, and the distribution centre staff behind them, were heroes. They were the ones who stepped up to feed the nation and stave off panic among consumers frightened by the prospect of bare store shelves.

“The public has shown that they’re happy to help out if there’s a bargain to be had. So why would they not put a little more money retailers’ way?”

It wasn’t just the staff in ‘essential’ stores, either. Whether it was home improvement or electrical goods, the retailers who made lockdown more bearable and working from home easier, or the online divisions that made special occasions live up to the name by delivering birthday presents or commiserative gifts for weddings put on hold, they all did their bit.

The public has shown that they’re happy to help out, especially if there’s a bargain to be had. So why would they not put a little more money retailers’ way as they have with restaurateurs?

Most retail sales still go through shops. Online has grown exponentially during the health emergency, but in most cases, it has not made up for lost store sales. It’s time to start reinvigorating their appeal by giving shoppers a reason to go out, not just to go online.