Retail re-opening: how fashion independents plan to get back to business

The Government has now named 15 June as the opening date for non-essential retail, having previously indicated that 1 June might be a possibility. The high street has responded, albeit cautiously with many big names from Next to John Lewis, Joules and Ted Baker saying they plan to begin to open stores in a phased manner from that new date. But of what of the industry’s many independents? We talk to four who tell us when they are planning to open and how they intend to operate in the “new normal”.

Steve English Cooshti

Steve English, Managing Director, Cooshti, Bristol

Now that the Government has announced 15 June as the re-opening date for non-essential retail, moving back from the expected 1 June date, will you be working towards that new date and what impact has the delay had?

I was working towards 1 June, but I think it may have been a bit too soon for many customers anyway. Hopefully the [COVID-19] numbers will keep falling and public and staff confidence in going back to the shops will be better by 15 June. But despite the government grant and loans, this is about the maximum time we can afford to stay closed as we will have been closed for three months by then.

I think that with all the precautions we will have in place including sanitiser stations, maximum number of customers, social distancing etc that it will be a lot safer shopping at our store than going to food shops / supermarkets & larger stores, given the lower footfall.

How have you been keeping in touch with customers during lockdown? And have you been able to trade as normal online via your own website?

We have been trading online throughout and have seen a good increase in web sales. We are currently doing just over half our normal overall turnover for this time of year.

What are your expectations for trade once you are allowed to open? Do you think the customer will gravitate more towards independent brands and retailers?

I think store sales and footfall will start off slower than normal as many people will still be wary of non-essential shopping trips unless the “numbers” are much better than they are now. Hopefully people will support independents more and prefer to shop small rather than go to big shopping centres.

Regarding employers’ guidance on reopening workplaces, the Government states “workplaces must be safe and COVID-secure,” – what actions are you taking so your store will be safe for staff and customers?

We will make sure we are following all guidance from HM Gov, Public Health England & Environmental Health Agency. We will have a maximum safe number of people allowed in to the store at once. We will also have a hand sanitizer station at the entrance for customers and staff to use, and we will have two-metre social distancing markers on the floor – along with prominent signage. We will have strict staff training with regard to a cleaning and sanitising regime, and we will be making improvements to the staff bathrooms and lunch/rest area to make them safer. We may possibly all wear face masks, and even possibly have sneeze screens at the counters. In terms of communicating measures to our customers.

How will you best communicate your safety measures to customers?

As I said, there will be social distancing signage, a prominent hand sanitizing station and social media will also play its part.

Stuarts
Ravi Grewal

Ravi Grewal, owner, Stuarts London

Now that the Government has announced 15 June as the re-opening date for non-essential retail, moving back from the expected 1 June date, will you be working towards that new date and what impact has the delay had?

We were working towards 8 June as that was when the local tube station was due to be back open. The push back to the 15th obviously doesn’t help planning ahead as such. The only main impact will be income. These times are unpredictable and times that the government themselves would need to keep assessing the safety and well-being of the public.

Even after lockdown opens who’s to say we are safe? It’s a pure case of testing a theory out. The longer the store says closed obviously that will be of an impact to our business. Thankfully by offering a discount to customers online we have been able to survive and pay bills.

We should be thankful we are governed by our nominated political leaders taking an active role to protect our interests and the countries interest the best they can. Sure, more could have been done earlier – but that’s in the past and we should look to what we can all do in the future and in the present to keep everyone safe.

I have friends and relatives in many parts of the world and trust me their governments are not very proactive at all. I have faith the decisions made by experts are based on a valid thought process backed with information that has been gathered to determine guidelines.

My business being closed hasn’t helped, it’s made things tougher, but money – income – is not more important than lives of many that could be saved.

How have you been keeping in touch with customers during lockdown? And have you been able to trade as normal online via your own website?

We’ve happily been selling online. Though it’s been a bit of struggle, thankfully our website business is very established and is our predominant selling avenue, so that’s been a godsend. It’s a very high percentage of the business, but the store is still very much needed. There’s always a point where you want to show physical product to people. Not everyone is an online savvy shopper, but we have had online sales from customers who would normally come to the store to buy. We’re quite tight with our customers, even though we’ve got big database of customers from up and down the country. We’ve also got a group of customers through Facebook, and we only allow certain members to join that group.

What are your expectations for trade once you are allowed to open? Do you think the customer will gravitate more towards independent brands and retailers?

I think people will be eager to get out and about again. People will want to touch and feel product before they make a purchase decision. London is a dense area, so we’re going to have footfall returning as I would have thought that people will be glad to be back out on the streets. In terms of gravitating more towards independent brands and retailers, that’s yet to see. My gut feeling is that we may find that the general UK public supports independent businesses more, knowing that they are the backbone of the UK, as opposed to the bigger stores on the high street. We could be in better position, because we are unique and we do things different from high street. But it all remains to be seen.

Regarding employers’ guidance on reopening workplaces, the Government states “workplaces must be safe and COVID-secure,” – what actions are you taking so your store will be safe for staff and customers?

We’ll put signage up and sticker tape on the floor to mark two metres distance apart in the shop, as they’ve done in the supermarkets. If we feel someone is too ill to be in the shop, or they don’t look quite right, we’ll politely ask them to leave. You don’t want let someone in who is who’s sneezing and coughing. In our warehouse at the moment we’re all wearing masks and gloves, and we’re adhering to two metre social distancing. Even our kitchen is strictly one in, one out. In terms of in the office, I have to keep some key staff at home because desks are too near in each other, though I do have a couple of guys in who can sit at a safe distance on opposite sides of a desk with a big divider in between them.

Pete Turner, Wellgosh

Pete Turner, owner, Wellgosh, Leicester

Now that the Government has announced 15 June as the re-opening date for non-essential retail, moving back from the expected 1 June date, will you be working towards that new date and what impact has the delay had?

We are obviously keen to get back to some kind of normality soon, so we are looking forward to opening up the bricks and mortar store again. However, we need to make sure that all the necessary safety measures for staff and customers are in place, and that all the staff are fully trained and prepared.

I think that the Government have realised the massive importance of this major re-opening of retail, and have given us all a couple more weeks to ensure that everything is in place. I think you will still probably see varying levels of strictness and compliance from the stores and how they apply the guidance, but as a business we want to be seen to doing as much as we can to protect our staff and customers. Rather than rush back and get it wrong, I am happy to take the extra couple of weeks to make sure we get it right, even if it means losing out on a couple more weeks of takings.

How have you been keeping in touch with customers during lockdown? And have you been able to trade as normal online via your own website, marketplace or social channels? How has business been if so?

Our usual newsletters and social posts have been going out on a regular basis so, in terms of communication with our customers, things haven’t been affected. Online trade has been brisk, in fact slightly up on last year. It seems that, despite lockdown, people have been keen to treat themselves and their family and friends, probably to stave off the boredom!

What are your expectations for trade once you are allowed to open? Do you think the customer will gravitate more towards independent brands and retailers?

I think trade will be quite tough for a while and it will take a bit of time to get back to normal. Although people are desperate to get out again, I think everyone will be understandably cautious and keen to keep their distance until confidence comes back. If there is a positive to all this, I think it might be that everyone’s values are realigned and hopefully more support and attention is given to smaller businesses and independents that city centres are going to need to survive.

Regarding employers’ guidance on reopening workplaces, the Government states “workplaces must be safe and COVID-secure,” – what actions are you taking so your store will be safe for staff and customers when you do re-open?

We are awaiting further guidance at this stage, but I think we will be limiting the amount of people in the store, providing hand sanitiser, making sure customers keep their distance from each other, placing screens at till points and possibly introducing separate entrance and exit doors, and implementing one-way systems. Staff leisure and relaxation areas will also be subject to distancing rules.

And how will you communicate your safety measures to customers?

We will have a friendly ‘meet and greet’ on the door to explain distancing rules, and to reassure customers that we are doing our bit. In addition, all our staff will be fully trained and briefed on communicating information to customers. This will be reinforced with strategically placed signage and floor markers where necessary. The instore shopping experience will be a bit different for the foreseeable future, but we hope it will be just as enjoyable.

Henry Hales SIRPLUS
Henry Hales, SIRPLUS

Henry Hales, Founder & Director, Sirplus

Now that the Government has announced 15 June as the re-opening date for non-essential retail, moving back from the expected 1 June date, will you be working towards that new date and what impact has the delay had?

We were working towards 1 June. It’s frustrating, but I would prefer that when we do open, we’re able to stay open, rather than opening up and having to close again if there is another peak.

How have you been keeping in touch with customers during lockdown? 

We’ve recently started doing Instagram Stories and we’re generally being more active on social media. We’re trying to send out more newsletters, keeping them as relevant as possible. We’re also keeping our customer service strong, and keeping our normal online channels open to make people aware that, whilst the shops aren’t open, we’re still in business and still trying to look after them as best as possible.

What are your expectations for trade once you are allowed to re-open? 

I think it will be quieter and trade will be significantly down, but then we could be surprised. We might find that perhaps bigger shops can’t manage the restrictions and social distancing measures effectively – so they may decide to stay closed. That could be to our advantage. We’ve certainly seen people gravitating more towards independent brands and retailers online, so hopefully that will happen in the stores as well.

Regarding employers’ guidance on re-opening workplaces, the government states “workplaces must be safe and COVID-secure,” so what actions will you be taking? 

We’re going to be having a strategy meeting soon, and we’ll look to having a queue outside the stores, only letting one or two people in at a time, depending on which shop it is. We’re going to have in-store customer appointments too. And we will be putting up screens in the stores for the sales guys to be behind. We’ll also maybe have shorter trading hours, and we’ll have regular communication with all of our store staff to make sure they’re all doing okay and they’re all very aware of the regulations. In terms of customers trying things on, we might have to have two products on the go at any one time, whereby one is tried on and the other is put on hold and essentially quarantined in a quarantine area in the shop. There’s talk of that anyway. We’re still trying to work out our plan and what’s best. We might have to say that people can try on specific garments, but others they just look at.

How will you be communicating the safety aspect to customers?

We’ve got a graphic designer who will be doing some signage. If somebody was to book an appointment, we will communicate with them how we are operating via email. Otherwise, people who come to the shop will see a big sign outside saying we’re adhering to the government’s safety policy, so please respect others and keep two meters apart, queue behind the line and that sort of thing.