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What will the UK high street look like after the coronavirus?

As the lockdown continues, many business owners are asking what the high street will look like after the coronavirus passes. Some ‘essential’ retailers are looking to reopen: Timpson announced it would open 40 stores, and following a trial of 14 outlets, B&Q is planning a phased reopening. With garden centres opening their doors in England and Wales, those in non-essential retail will be watching and asking when they can reopen too.

Who’ll be back?

This question has two meanings: Firstly, will customers return to the high street after the coronavirus? Before the outbreak, UK high street footfall was already declining, and many chains were suffering from the financial crisis’ long-term effects. Some experts have gone as far as predicting another recession in the pandemic’s aftermath.

Britons were increasingly shopping online, and many ‘non-essential’ shops now rely on their online sales for survival. With those trends in ‘normal times’, will shoppers return to the high street after the novelty of going out again wears off?

The lockdown may have consequences for some ‘non-essential’ products as customers realise what is truly important. Managing without some non-essentials may deter people from buying them immediately after lockdown. Throwaway culture and fast fashion, already under fire from recent environmental movements, could fall even further out of favour.

The second meaning relates to the retailers themselves; how many will survive long enough to reopen their doors? The crisis has already seen Laura Ashley fall into administration, and Primark sell nothing since it closed. With no apparent end to the lockdown, more retailers could fall into insolvency before things return to normal.

There are a lot of help schemes available for businesses struggling with coronavirus-related debt. However, some are frustrated at the slow progress of the Government’s programmes, with the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) facing criticism due to the banks’ insistence on credit checks and personal guarantees before issuing funds. If you’ve been rejected for the Government’s support schemes, you can still apply for commercial finance, or if necessary, a procedure overseen by a licensed insolvency practitioner.

Safety first

Safety of staff and customers should be a top priority as retailers consider reopening. Until a review of social distancing takes place, any shops which can reopen will still need to observe the guidelines.

Shops may have to take steps to keep customers apart or limit the number allowed in at any one time. They may also consider reducing the number of touchpoints, further limiting opportunities for the virus to spread. New guidance even suggests wearing facemasks when in a shop or enclosed public spaces.

Ignoring social distancing rules risks infecting other customers and staff, effectively negating the work already done. Of course, until social distancing is relaxed, and the lockdown lifted, non-essential retailers will remain closed or risk fines.

Summary

It’s an uncertain time for Britain’s high street as the lockdown continues with no end in sight. Although the essential shops can remain open, non-essential retailers continue waiting with bated breath. When the restrictions will be lifted is unknown, and there’s no guarantee that customers won’t discard the high street in favour of online shopping. On top of whether shoppers will return, the question of which shops will reopen is one nobody can answer. Some have closed already, while others cling on with government support and insolvency procedures. Whenever the shops can reopen, retailers will need to be careful about how they approach it, and the process should be closely monitored to avoid a rise in transmission rates.

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