Retailer hopes new shopping etiquette such as disposable socks for trying on shoes will tempt customers back
It is John Lewis but not as you know it. The department store chain has given its stores a coronavirus makeover and customers will next week find new shopping rules apply – including not trying on clothes and escalator etiquette involving an eight-step gap.
The employee-owned retailer, along with other big high-street names such as Marks & Spencer and Primark, will enter a brave new world on Monday when the relaxation of government restrictions in England provides the first real glimpse of shopper appetite to return to the high street proper. Department stores, bookshops, electrical outlets and toy retailers will be among the businesses opening when non-essential shops welcome back customers after an enforced three-month shutdown.
Bérangère Michel, who oversees customer service at the John Lewis Partnership, which owns the John Lewis stores and the Waitrose supermarket business, says it has taken a month to get its store in Kingston upon Thames, south-west London – one of two opening on Monday, the other is Poole, Dorset – safe for the public to shop in. “It’s a complex thing to open a department store – and we know what it takes to run a socially distanced store because we have been running Waitrose for 12 weeks,” she explains.
The store spread over three floors looks subtly different. The brightly lit atrium still smells of the expensive scented candles on display but the shop floor is punctuated with reminders of the health crisis, from the stickers on the ground to signs by the escalators advising shoppers to “keep eight steps between you and the next customer”. Initially only 270 shoppers will be allowed into the cavernous store at once – less than half of the store’s usual capacity.
There are other changes too. If you are in the market to buy a new sofa or bed you will have to use a disposable hygiene cover before making yourself comfortable. Similarly if a pair of shoes catches your eye, you will need to wait for a spot on the socially distanced banquettes and wear disposable popsocks before trying them on.
“Customers will need to need to get used to some of the new ways of shopping,” advises Michel, who says customers are encouraged to use the hand sanitiser dotted around its store every 20 minutes if they want to touch things safely. “We aren’t encouraging customers to try on fashion: if you want to buy a dress and don’t know if you are a size 12 or 14, then buy both and return one if you need to.”
After missing out on 12 weeks of trading, including a glorious sun-soaked May – which would have meant a rush on summer dresses, shorts and sandals – next week’s reprieve is thin gruel for department stores and fashion retailers which are the backbone of our shopping centres.
The lockdown has wiped out an entire season for fashion retailers with Debenhams, Quiz and Monsoon among the high street names to have announced store closures and job losses during the quarantine. Indeed, when the Kingston store opens on Monday (a further 11 of John Lewis’s 50 department shops will follow suit on Thursday) it is just in time for the summer sale with signs by the footwear and clothing departments promising bargain-hunters “up to 70% off”.
Given the grim economic backdrop retailers are not expecting a gold rush. The queues seen several weeks ago when garden centres and stores such as B&Q, Homebase and Ikea reopened point to pent-up demand, but no one is popping champagne corks in the John Lewis boardroom. The retailer has already set out a worst-case scenario where department stores sales fall 35% this year.
Richard Lim, who runs the consultancy firm Retail Economics, said: “The big thing is no one really knows how consumers are going to react. I think they will continue to prioritise spending on the things they need, but they are also desperate to get out so … there might be an initial bump in footfall.”
The other issue, Lim suggests, is whether consumer expectations of the high street will marry up with the reality as queues, one-way systems and physical distancing wardens threaten to squeeze the fun out of shopping – potentially sending them back online. “There might just be a gap between what people expect and what it actually is like,” he says.
Michel says customers have been writing to her asking when their local John Lewis will reopen and is optimistic that there will be a section of the public eager to shop for pleasure again. “I think people just want a normal life,” she says. “However, we are also conscious that some of our customers either might not feel safe or still are not allowed to leave their home yet.”
With countries emerging from lockdown at different speeds and no clear pattern of recovery emerging, retailers are taking a step into the unknown. But Michel adds: “You can only control what you can control. This is a reawakening of the high street and British communities and isn’t just about shopping.”
Stores reopening on Thursday 18 June