How Planning, Reassurance, and Co-operation Can Help Independent High Street Stores Recover
For independent high street retailers, good news has been hard to find recently, with enforced temporary closure now compounded by the uncertainties around phased reopening and the need to adapt quickly to a new ‘socially distanced’ reality.
New research[i] does, however, offer a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Consumers, it found, have been quietly changing their shopping habits to support local independent stores during lockdown – and there are signs that goodwill will endure once physical stores start to reopen.
Loyalty Brings Hope…
Almost half the UK population (32 million people) have pledged to support local businesses since March, while 44% said lockdown has made them change their shopping habits and that they now plan to shop locally.
For the businesses that stayed open, 62% agreed that they’d stay loyal to the local businesses that worked to help them through lockdown. What’s more, almost half (44%) said that lockdown has made them change their shopping habits – and that they now plan to shop locally.
…But Big Challenges Remain
Clearly, that renewed sense of loyalty and goodwill towards independent stores is cause for cautious optimism, but there are still many hurdles to reopening stores – from the need to reassure staff and customers it is safe to return, to reduced income from socially distanced store footfall – and, ironically, getting it wrong could quickly undo all that newly gained goodwill.
So, what can independent stores do to navigate these challenges and ensure that a much-anticipated re-opening is as successful as possible?
Have a Clear Plan
Clearly, the situation – and the government guidance that goes with it – is changing all the time, which means the ability to adapt to evolving circumstances will be very important. Even so, having a clear operational plan for re-opening will be crucial.
For instance, though many stores may be allowed to open on 1 June, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the right thing to do. It’s vital to think about how restrictions like social distancing in-store, staff availability, and possible disruption to suppliers might affect your ability to trade viably.
Think about how the need to keep staff and customers two metres apart will affect sales – for instance, work out how many people might be in store under normal circumstances, how much that is reduced under social distancing and, therefore, how sales and income will be affected.
Similarly, work with suppliers to understand how your ability to buy stock might be disrupted, and think about the specific needs of all your staff, particularly those in vulnerable groups – to work out which staff members you can reasonably ask to return to work.
All these insights will help you to forecast how the business might perform after re-opening, and identify and plan for issues – even work out when to re-open as circumstances change.
Assess, Manage and Monitor Risk
It goes without saying that ensuring your store is as safe as possible for staff and customers will be priority. The government has set out detailed guidance for stores planning to re-open, but everything starts with a risk assessment.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)[ii], this means:
- Identifying what activities or situations might cause COVID-19 transmission.
- Thinking about who could be at risk.
- Deciding the likelihood of someone’s exposure.
- Acting to remove the activity or situation or, where this isn’t possible, control the risk.
While that means looking at every aspect of the store and interaction between staff and customers, it is important to particularly focus on high traffic areas like doorways, tills, stairways, changing rooms, and any items of stock that sell in particularly high volumes.
Managing the risk will include deciding whether personal protective equipment is required, and available in sufficient quantity, and putting in place a range of measures to maintain social distancing – from limited entry and safe queuing, one-way systems and in-store signage, to till barriers, and regular cleaning and disinfection. You can read more about managing risk in retail here, and guidance on re-organising stores ready for re-opening from the British Retail Consortium here.
Meanwhile, the full government guidance for re-opening safely is available in detail here.
Reassure Staff and Customers
Careful risk management, properly documented, communicated, and accompanied by appropriate staff training will play an important role in helping stores to overcome perhaps the most significant hurdle to a successful re-opening ‒ reassuring staff and customers it is safe to return.
According to recent research[iii], 44% of employees are anxious about going back to work because of the health risks posed by COVID-19 to them and those close to them. Just how quickly consumers will embrace a re-opened high street remains to be seen, but it is a fair to assume they will show a clear preference for stores they feel have effective safety measures in place.
Provided risk assessments have been completed and all necessary steps have been taken to manage risk, then open, honest communication will play a vital role in allaying staff and customer fears. That could mean simple measures like displaying a COVID-19 Secure badge and, more importantly setting out for each group the steps that have been taken to help keep them safe while in store. For customers, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can prove effective as a means of communicating that the business is open and the steps that have been taken to keep them safe.
In the case of employees, it might also be necessary to work with them to help find safe ways to travel to and from work too. Meanwhile, for customers, constant, friendly re-enforcement of social distancing measures while queuing and in-store will help reassure that you are taking their safety seriously.
Review Your Insurance
For retailers seeking to re-open effective insurance cover will be as important as ever. For instance, property cover to step in if the store is affected by a serious incident like fire or flood. Public liability cover to help with potentially expensive liability claims if someone is injured while in the store, and employers liability to help with things like legal defence costs and compensation if an employee is injured at work – and which remains a legal requirement.
Crucially, insurers have indicated that existing insurance arrangements will remain in force, provided government ‘COVID-19 Secure’ recommendations are implemented, documented and monitored. Equally, it is important to ensure staff are comfortable to return, a risk assessment is carried out, and proper safety and sanitation measures are in place.
Check with your insurance broker if you are unsure, particularly if the business has diversified or adapted as part of any plan to re-open.
Further information on insurance for high street businesses during the pandemic is available here.
Work with Neighbouring Stores
Local, independent high street stores may also be able to draw on combined efforts to both overcome issues and help make re-opening a shared success – at least in part drawing on that groundswell of goodwill amongst local shoppers.
For instance, orderly, well managed, socially distanced queues outside stores are perhaps the most visible clue for shoppers that stores are taking safety seriously – but how will multiple queues on the same high street actually work? Will queues from neighbouring stores get in each other’s way and impact on shopper safety? How will that affect shopper goodwill?
The answer may be in working together, sharing plans for queuing to ensure that not just individual queues are safe, but that the high street feels safe too – with the independent stores leading by example.
On a more positive note, high street independents may also seek to work together to capitalise on local goodwill and loyalty – for instance running local campaigns to encourage shoppers to support local stores and promoting each other in-store – to help amplify and sustain changing shopper habits as we emerge from lockdown.
Further Advice From smei
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