Comment: Retail needs a clear path to reopening safely

With the right supports and measures in place, the industry could start to reopen once Covid-19 cases have reached a low enough level

By the time we reach the anniversary of the emergence of this virus in Ireland later this month, many retailers will have been closed for half a year. Photo:

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact on life in Ireland and abroad, there is a marked sense of uncertainty in all areas of society. When will some element of normality resume? When will our mass vaccination programme be completed? When will we be finally rid of this virus?

Some of this uncertainty is unavoidable – this is an unprecedented situation, after all – but some is more difficult to understand.

By the time we reach the anniversary of the emergence of this virus in Ireland later this month, many retailers will have been closed for half a year. After such a nightmare year, these businesses need some sense of clarity around what reopening might look like, but so far this clarity has not been forthcoming.

We understand that the situation is fluid and will continue to be so for some time. But surely we could start to settle on some agreed milestones on the path to reopening different sections of the economy: the daily number of new infections, the level of the “R rate”, the number of vaccines administered, for example.

The very nature of the retail industry necessitates a significant amount of planning – not just in the short term, but also in the medium and long-term. But seemingly trapped in a holding pattern of sorts, with no activity taking place, it is impossible for retailers to plan with any degree of certainty.

This adds to financial pressures and stress. The fact that many retailers have successfully pivoted to online selling is a positive thing, but cannot make up for the uncertainty.

Government supports such as the Employee Wage Subsidy Scheme and the Online Retail Scheme have helped businesses, but we are seeing a growing crisis with regard to retailers’ rents, supplier payments and fixed costs.

A survey conducted among our members in January showed that over half still owed more than 20 per cent of their total rent for 2020. Furthermore, 57 per cent are anticipating further issues with paying rent in this current lockdown. This is simply unsustainable.

Clearly a mechanism needs to be agreed to govern how landlords and retailers approach this issue, but there seems to be little preparedness on the policy front to plan for this inevitability.

Rent is not the only issue. As more retailers turn online to salvage some sales during the pandemic, the reskilling of certain staff is a key consideration, and something which could be addressed in the form of state supports and courses.

There are three ways in which the retail industry could start to reopen safely once Covid-19 case numbers get down to an acceptable level in March and beyond.

1. Click-and-collect

Under the government’s initial five-level plan for living with Covid-19, click-and-collect services are included as acceptable practices even under level 5 restrictions. Retailers have been unable to offer this valuable service since the New Year, however.

The retail industry has done everything asked of it in terms of safeguarding the health of shoppers by enforcing adequate social-distancing measures, sanitisation control and other protective measures such as perspex screens, so it is difficult to see how click-and-collect would pose a public health safety risk.

Furthermore, click-and-collect services are generally utilised close to home for smaller, local retailers. This is a valuable lifeline for businesses which need help the most.

2. Appointment-only shopping

It is obvious that conventional shopping in regular outlets is not an option in the short term. Appointment-only shopping, however, is something that could be facilitated effectively and safely by the vast majority of non-essential retailers.

This would give retailers a lifeline before opening up normally again, and would go a long way towards helping them stave off examinership or even liquidation. It would also give a much-needed outlet for people who are dealing with stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic.

3. Reopening larger-format stores

With strict social distancing measures in place alongside other infection control measures, it is not unrealistic to plan for opening larger-format stores such as garden centres and furniture stores.

Garden centres, in particular, would encourage people to safely work on their garden or outdoor space in the medium term, which would have the added benefit for people’s wellbeing.

This pandemic has been a crushing blow for the whole of society, and there is nothing more important now than driving it out and keeping it out. There is a middle-ground, however, which could keep people safe and provide a much-needed lifeline to a retail industry that is on its knees with no meaningful path to recovery as it stands.

It is clear that a detailed plan for recovery is needed from the government to safeguard the livelihoods of more than 250,000 workers in the retail industry. A logical starting point should be a plan for reopening which would be positive news for us all.

We have already suffered through three lockdowns so one thing is clear: whatever happens, we all need to make sure this is the last one.

Duncan Graham is the managing director of Retail Excellence