Retailers have been left angry and confused by the government’s handling of second lockdown store closures, after its guidance on mixed essential and non-essential retail was published late. 

Last Wednesday, the government published its second lockdown regulations, including a list of retailers it considered essential and non-essential ahead of the law coming into force from midnight. 

However, the government had been expected to publish guidance on what those regulations meant in practice for ‘mixed retail’ businesses the same day. Instead, the final guidance was published on Friday,  left many retailers angry at the delay and resulting confusion.

As a result of the change in guidance, Marks & Spencer will only sell non-food items in store on the same floor as food. Over the weekend, grocers including Tesco and Sainsbury’s were reported to have blocked access to parts of stores following the new government advice.

M&S has closed over half its available selling floors across England and will be forced to furlough some staff. 

Frasers Group has been the most public retailer in criticising the government’s handling of the second lockdown and, indeed, the coronavirus crisis more widely. 

In a statement published on the London Stock Exchange this afternoon, Frasers said it would be closing all fascias in England until at least December 2, including those with mixed retail use that include ‘essential retail’, before criticising the government for its handling of the second lockdown. 

“In England, stores closed from November 5, 2020, and are currently expected to reopen when current regulations expire after 28 days. The government finally updated mixed retail rules for England yesterday, Thursday, November 6, 2020. 

“We note inconsistencies remain and, given Michael Gove MP chose to perform a PR stunt on TV to deflect the public’s opprobrium onto Frasers Group at the start of the previous lockdown, we currently will not be opening any of our fascias in England, including those with mixed retail use that include ‘essential retail’.”

Frasers’ statement continued: “In our opinion, based on the fact that amongst other matters the government has been unwilling, over a period of six months, to even clarify what it believes a ‘bicycle shop’ is, the likes of Mr Gove are failing to provide the leadership and guidance that businesses require. 

“Even the chaotic demises of BHS and Debenhams seem to us to be a picnic when compared to the systematic and risible mismanagement of Covid-19 by Mr Gove and his cohorts, which is causing devastation in particular to the retail sector.”

Guidance draws ‘arbitrary lines’ 

The BRC has also been critical of the government’s guidance, claiming its differentiation between essential and non-essential is “arbitrary”. 

BRC director of business and regulations Tom Ironside said: “The retail industry has invested hundreds of millions of pounds to make stores safe and secure for customers, and we don’t believe that any retailers should be required to close.

“The new regulations create arbitrary lines over what is and isn’t an ‘essential’ retailer. Unfortunately for many people, this means they cannot visit shops to get the items that are essential to them, from the home office equipment and electronics they need for work to the pots, pans, fridges and freezers they need during lockdown.

“This is obviously a critical time for physical retail, which had not yet recovered from the first lockdown. With Christmas fast approaching, our estimates are that closed shops will lose out on around £2bn of sales per week during lockdown, so it is essential that all of retail has the certainty that it will be allowed to open – and remain open – from the start of December.”

A spokesman for John Lewis said: “In the spirit of the lockdown, we will not be opening any part of John Lewis shops where there is a food offering on the same floor. They will only be open for customers to collect items they have bought online, as per government guidelines.”

Sainsbury’s has confirmed that all Argos store-in-stores will be open for click-and-collect only. 

Retail Week understands that Fortnum & Mason has also closed all but the first three floors of its Piccadilly flagship store.