The country, and therefore retail, is on a “one-way road to freedom” as prime minister Boris Johnson put it when he unveiled a route out of lockdown.
For many retailers, it could not come a moment too soon and they will eagerly anticipate the reopening of non-essential retail – assuming all goes to plan – on April 12.
Finally, sunlit uplands may be in view. But freedom will not mean an immediate return to how things were before.
While shops will open in a couple of months’ time, life will be disrupted until June at least, when the hope is that most restrictions will be lifted. Until then, and in all likelihood for some time afterwards, business and life as usual will still be very different.
From the end of March, people will be able to emerge, blinking in the sun, and socialise a little more. But hospitality, which plays such a key part in the vibrancy of town and city centres and helps draw retail footfall, will not be polishing the glasses and laying the tables until mid-May, when indoor drinking and dining resumes.
When hospitality does fully reopen, it is likely to alter some spending dynamics as consumers divert more money towards eating and drinking out and away from retailers that have benefited from sales of treats to lighten long days spent at home.
Similarly, it is unclear when offices will reopen – that is the subject of a review to be completed before mid-June. So there is no imminent return of the commuter trade that sets the tills ringing at retailers ranging from Marks & Spencer to WHSmith on station concourses.
Many offices have been reconfigured during lockdown to cater for a new style of working that only necessitates employees’ presence part of the time, scything away days’ worth of shopper traffic and trade.
Twitter, for instance, whose UK base is just off Regent Street in the heart of London’s West End shopping district, has already said staff can work from home “forever”, while advisory firm KPMG is considering whether it should reduce office space in expectation of hybrid working in future.
Less time at the office means categories such as fashion will continue to be affected by lower demand for formal work apparel.
Restrictions also remain on international travel for the time being. When will foreign tourists and the money they bring to the UK return?
Brits look poised to rush overseas at the first opportunity – holiday company Tui reported bookings were up 500% overnight after Johnson’s announcement and EasyJet said there was a 337% increase in flight bookings.
That should provide some compensation to sellers of sun cream, holiday outfits and the like, including airport retailers.
As retailers ponder these and other questions, they also need to juggle the complexity of Covid recovery strategies that vary across the constituent nations of the UK.
“Despite all the unknowns, a clear route has now been set out. Bricks-and-mortar retailers may be disappointed they will not be trading for Easter, but they can now prepare to bounce back”
In Scotland, for instance, it is widely anticipated that the government will reimpose a tiers system, in contrast to the phased general reopening planned for England under Johnson’s roadmap.
Despite all the unknowns, at least a clear route has now been set out. Bricks-and-mortar retailers may be disappointed they will not be trading for Easter, but they can now prepare to bounce back.
They will be operating in a very different environment. The pandemic has done for some famous names such as Debenhams and Arcadia, now online-only under new owners, and there has been an irreversible shift to online shopping.
Today, for instance, Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group said it expects to make “material accounting impairments”, including to freehold properties of more than £100m, citing “the length of this current lockdown, potential systemic changes to consumer behaviour and the risk of further restrictions in future”.
But the future of good stores can still be bright. It was striking that Primark was able to report that it retained its market share when its shops reopened following previous lockdowns.
Primark, which does not trade online, is the pre-eminent bricks-and-mortar retailer and its strength of proposition and efficient model should serve as inspiration for other store operators, who are also likely to seek to make physical and digital complement each other further.
The market has not written off store-based retail if reaction to the reopening announcement is a guide. Analyst Nick Bubb observes that, following Johnson’s statement, “investors bade a fond farewell to those stocks that had seen them through the depths of the pandemic, with the so-called lockdown winners, from online supermarkets to DIY retailers, getting sold off”.
Investec analyst Kate Calvert said of the roadmap: “Most retailers had hoped for pre-Easter, but this is close enough, with little downside risk to forecasts in our view.
“We continue to see upside risk to outer-year forecasts for most in our coverage universe and scope for a further rerating as a more ‘normalised’ environment returns.”
Johnson’s strategy has been criticised by some as too cautious. However, his ambition is that it is “irreversible”.
The phasing of each stage of relaxation, allowing time to analyse Covid data and be reassured that things are going to plan, means that, although there may be some upsets along the way, the chances of a reversal are minimised. For that, retailers will be grateful.