After a weekend of back and forth and contradictory messaging, today finally brought clarity about whether face masks must be worn by shoppers in stores.

Boris Johnson face mask

Source: Number 10

Boris Johnson wore a face mask while out and about at the weekend

From July 24, face coverings become mandatory for customers in England, like their Scottish counterparts before them. Anyone breaking the rules faces a £100 fine.

For retailers seeking to rebuild trade as lockdown eases, the face masks edict raises one big question: will the decision boost consumer confidence and so stimulate retail, or undermine sentiment and scare shoppers away?

As they consider that, retailers are glad that at least now there is clarity on the matter. The formerly mixed messaging from Westminster had added further unwelcome confusion into an already uncertain environment.

“I do think it will have an impact on consumer confidence, probably negative for our demographic”

Peter Cowgill, JD Sports

JD Sports executive chair Peter Cowgill told Radio 4’s Today Programme on Tuesday that the government had come across as “indecisive” on the issue – evident, he said, in the fact that the new rules do not come into force immediately.

Cowgill suggests the move could be “positive” for older consumers, but might deter his younger customers, who could see it as a hassle. He says: “I do think it will have an impact on consumer confidence, probably negative for our demographic.”

GlobalData lead retail analyst Sofie Willmott takes a similar view. She observes: “Shopping for non-essential items is already less appealing than pre-Covid due to the queuing involved, the inability to try items on and the risk of catching the virus. 

“Many consumers will see the face mask requirement as another reason not to visit non-essential shops, as it is a reminder that shopping trips are not what we are used to and are more hassle than before.”

Nobody actually knows for sure what the impact will be, but some are more optimistic that it could inspire confidence in shopping.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson says: “In this case, the majority of opinion has moved faster than the government – people have wanted to go there [on face coverings] and it’s taken a while for them to catch up.”

“As we adjust to a new and more protected way of living our lives, mask wearing will be part of what we do”

Catherine Shuttleworth, Savvy

Catherine Shuttleworth, chief executive of retail marketing specialist Savvy, says: “It’s necessary and sensible to protect shopworkers and shoppers from the unnecessary risks of passing on or picking up Covid.

“Mask wearing will give many shoppers confidence to go out safely, but the inconvenience of putting a mask on will, I think, push many back to online shopping, especially in non-food and general merchandise. 

Wearing a face mask in shops will become obligatory from July 24

Wearing a face mask in shops will become mandatory from July 24

“In Leeds city centre last week, footfall was rising significantly, but with little evidence of mask-wearing. As we adjust to a new and more protected way of living our lives, mask-wearing will need to be part of what we do.”

Face coverings are already obligatory while shopping in countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain, and have been mandatory in Scotland since July 10. Retail’s reopening in Scotland has been a few weeks behind England, and it is too soon to know how the rule has affected business.

However, Dickinson says early indications are that things are “going relatively smoothly” in Scotland.

Chief executive of retail consultancy BroadReach Julie Ashworth, who is based in Edinburgh, believes that “overall, wearing of masks has increased both consumer and retailer confidence”.

But there is no getting away from the fact that wearing a mask detracts from the experience of shopping.

Ashworth says: “Masks are generally hot and uncomfortable, more so if you wear glasses, so time spent in store is much reduced.

“Generally, consumers are saying that ‘leisure’ shopping is no longer fun. Non-food, especially fashion, is much impacted. Many consumers have got used to online browsing and shopping. If a store doesn’t do click and collect, spontaneous purchasing is rare.”

Anecdotal evidence, Ashworth adds, suggests that teenagers ”won’t be seen wearing a mask”.

World Retail Congress chair Ian McGarrigle has found from his conversations with retailers such as El Corte Ingles in Spain and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, that wearing masks has not been an issue. He says: “What comes across is that it is now part of people’s behaviour and they don’t question it. There seems to be an expectation by consumers that stores will have all the safety measures in place and that everyone should be wearing masks.”

While they weigh up the pros and cons, retailers in the UK will at least breathe a sigh of relief that they will not be made responsible for enforcing the wearing of masks – that will be a police matter.

Some, like JD’s Cowgill, whose staff will offer masks to shoppers without them, sees no reason to delay implementation of the new rules until a week on Friday, but others believe that time will be invaluable for retailers to prepare.

“It’s right that there’s a police role – retailers’ role is to be encouragers, not enforcers”

Helen Dickinson, BRC

Dickinson says the safety of store staff has been a concern, especially since instances of violence and abuse – often triggered by the need for age verification – have risen over the course of the pandemic. 

The delay before masks become obligatory means that retailers have time to plan.

She says: “It’s important for retailers to ensure staff are trained to handle aggressive situations, and when to walk away. That’s why it’s good that there’s notice. It’s right that there’s a police role – retailers’ role is to be encouragers, not enforcers.”

The notice period before masks come into force also gives consumers time to buy them. Unlike in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak, when a rush to stores led to shelves being stripped of essential products, it is understood that masks are not in short supply.

That, though, may be the least of retailers’ worries as they navigate yet another obstacle thrown up by the pandemic. It may take more than face masks to truly reinstill consumer confidence.