What the Government COVID roadmap means for MI retail

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MIA Executive Director Anthony Short offers a few thoughts on what the government COVID roadmap announcements mean for MI retail.

There is no doubt that the headline news this week around the lifting of personal restrictions is a boost to the economic prospects of many sectors, including those shops selling musical instruments.

Whilst the initial unlocking of non-essential stores in April was positive, footfall soon plateaued and the recovery to a certain extent stalled. True, the average basket value for many resellers has increased and this points to an intent on the part of those consumers visiting the High Street to complete a purchase journey – but what it also tells us is that browsing, impulse buys and shopping as a social activity had waned.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has for a while been pushing for restrictions to be eased, arguing that transmission rates as a result of visiting a shop floor were very low. The argument being that social distancing and the wearing of masks were acting not only as a deterrent to Shoppers but also made some forms of retail impractical.

As such the announcements made earlier this week, on the surface, look positive and may well provide the impetus to get footfall numbers rising. However, there are a number of factors that MI retailers may need to consider prior to the changes coming into force on the 19th July.

Whilst the vaccination program has helped break the link between COVID cases and severe illness and hospitalisation, the fact is that case numbers are rising. The Delta variant has very quickly become the dominant strain in the UK, and its relative transmissibility means we are looking at possible new infection rates of 100,000 per day in the next few weeks. 

Current self-isolation rules remain in force until the 16th August so the potential challenge for businesses will be that potentially up to a million people a day may be informed they have to stay at home, putting huge pressure on employers. Retail stores are often staffed by people under 30, so it may be a while before this group is double vaccinated – and as case rates are high in the younger age groups Retail businesses may well be forced to close because of a lack of cover. 

There are already calls for the guidance on self-isolation to change sooner, but as long as these rules require double-vaccination the problem for Retail businesses may linger due to the demographic of the workforce. In a recent meeting I attended with the Independent Retailers Confederation (IRC) both the Butchers & Bakers trade associations shared case studies of a number of stores that had been forced to close because of the enforcement of self-isolation protocols.

Another challenge for MI retailers will be around the protection of both vulnerable staff and customers. For many people, the protections offered by the COVID restrictions have brought a sense of security about going to work, or visiting a shop. We don’t really know how consumers will react over the coming weeks, but if there is a shift return to pre-pandemic behaviours then the more vulnerable will be less likely to engage. This could lead to some shop workers making the decision to leave their jobs and some shoppers making the choice to stay at home.

The solution to one (or both) of these potential challenges may be for individual retail businesses to ask customers to continue to social distance and/or wear masks, after all this was a cultural shift we saw in parts of Asia following the SARS epidemic. This would seem, on the face of it, a sensible and pragmatic approach for the short to medium term – public opinion seems to be largely in favour of this, especially when it comes to public transport.

The challenge of course is two-fold; one, it will be opposed by consumers who don’t want to voluntarily participate and see it as an infringement of their rights – and let’s face it these types of situations on a shop-floor rarely finish well (if you want to read more there is a great article by Womble Bond Dickinson on this topic here)

And secondly, it risks jeopardising the kind of recovery that high street retail businesses, in particular, really need.

There is a consensus of opinion that we have to work out how to live with COVID in the short (and probably) medium term. This is going to mean balancing a number of legitimate interests to help get back to some sort of predictability. Overall the lifting of restrictions should be seen as a positive for MI retailers, and there is no doubt we want to see more people back in store and picking up instruments. As we have seen it won’t be without challenges though, and retailers will have difficult decisions to make about their individual businesses as they navigate the next few months.