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Independent retailers call for Government intervention over lockdown restrictions on "non-essential" retail

Lauretta Roberts
07 November 2020

Independent retailers are calling for the Government to intervene over the types of "non-essential" retail still taking place during Lockdown 2, which got underway in England this week.

BIRA (British Independent Retailers Association) believes that mixed retailers, those that sell both essential and non-essential items, have been given an unfair advantage while pure non-essential retail has been forced to close once again for at least a month.

Marks & Spencer, for example, said on the eve of the latest lockdown that its full-range stores would be permitted to open since the retailer was classed as key due to its food halls.

However the Government issued further clarification on this matter yesterday after lockdown had been in force for 24 hours. In its guidance it clarified that while retailers selling essential items, such as food, were not required to cordon off non-essential items they must close non-essential departments if they are in separate buildings or on separate floors.

This has led to Marks & Spencer closing more of its clothing & home departments than it had hoped, but where clothing is sold on the same floor as the food hall it is permitted to leave that department open.

During the two-week firebreak lockdown in Wales which comes to an end tomorrow, supermarkets had been obliged to cordon off non-essential items whether they were on the same floor or not, but the Government said such measures would not be implemented in England.

Following fears the rules could be flouted, its new guidance now reads:

  • A business selling a significant amount of essential retail may also continue to sell goods typically sold at non-essential retail. For example, a supermarket that sells food is not required to close off or cordon off aisles selling homeware.
  • Where a business selling essential retail has another, separate business embedded within it that is required to close, the embedded business must close. For example, an electronics business operating a concession within a supermarket must close, as would a bookshop business inside a garden centre.
  • Where a business has sufficiently distinct parts, and one section provides essential retail and one section provides non-essential retail, the non-essential sections should close to limit interactions between customers and the opportunity for the disease to spread. Sufficiently distinct sections might involve operating in separate buildings, across separate floors, a door between sections, using separate cashiers, or another clear demarcation between sections. For example a food shop may stay open, but a homeware section on a separate floor or separate building should close.

However BIRA says the clarifications do not go far enough. CEO Andrew Goodacre said: “We have been pushing for clarity and we are pleased to see some clearer guidance on the types of essential shop and the products available.

“However, we already have concerns that large stores are flouting the rules and would question the percentage of ‘essential’ items sold through the likes of B&M and The Original Factory Shop.

“We are also aware that Carpetright is open whereas we have advised all our members selling flooring to close.

He added: “We have had lots of questions and complaints form members about the actions of other retailers and the unfairness of the regulations. I have raised all these issues with the Business Minister and BEIS since Monday and these guidelines seem to reflect some of the concerns we raised.”

Evans Cycles

Yesterday Mike Ashley's Frasers Group issued a statement in which it confirmed that all of its stores across its portfolio would close whether they are considered "essential" or not. The retail group had a run-in with Cabinet Minister Michael Gove at the start of the first lockdown as it tried to push for its Sports Direct stores to remain open on the grounds they fitted into the category of "health" stores, which were permitted to open.

Gove openly criticised the chain in a television interview and the company apologised and backed down. However, like last time, the retailer has closed its Evans Cycles stores, despite the fact that "bicycle stores" are permitted to open.

In its latest statement the group singled out Gove for criticism. “The Government finally updated mixed retail rules for England yesterday. 

“We note inconsistencies remain and, given Michael Gove MP chose to perform a PR stunt on TV to deflect the public’s opprobrium on to 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’.”

It 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.”

Jo Jo Maman Bebe

Earlier this week JoJo Maman Bebe founder Laura Tenison issued an open letter urging the Government to explain its rationale behind its "non-essential" classifications since her stores, which while they do sell clothing, also sell baby feeding, health care and development products, which are often needed at short notice, particularly in instances of early or premature births.

Tenison said she understood that some retailers would prefer to stay closed due to severely curtailed footfall and take advantage of the Government support available. “However, I am looking at the situation with a holistic approach and whilst our stores have been badly hit by the side effects of the pandemic, I do not wish to burden the fiscal purse with more expense if it is not absolutely necessary," she said.

"We wish to stay open. We wish to offer our service. We wish to be useful to society and pay our taxes – not take handouts. We have not borrowed since 2008 and went into this pandemic as a healthy, well funded business which has not been rapped by the shareholders and was in a good position to continue to expand both domestically and internationally,” Tenison added.

JoJo Maman Bebe, which has 94 stores in total, had closed its stores during the Welsh lockdown, despite baby care items being reclassified as essential, and is doing the same in England, but is urging the Government to reconsider its classifications stating it was unfair that an off license could remain open but her stores could not.

Current guidelines class the following types of retail as essential, among others: food, off licenses, pharmacies, chemists, newsagents, hardware, petrol stations, banks, post offices, dry cleaners and launderettes.

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