Five weeks after Freedom Day and what have we learnt?

Following the lifting of most Covid restrictions on the 19th July, MIA Executive Director Anthony Short considers how the High Street has fared.

I have just come back from a family holiday in Cornwall (more on this later) and so on Monday morning, I was looking for a suitable way to ease myself gently back into the working week. As I was skimming my inbox I chanced upon the latest report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) that covered the high street footfall stats for July and decided to give it the once over.

Now you would be right for thinking this is a strange choice for post-holiday reading, but my interest was piqued because of my own shopping experience whilst I had been away. 

Ever since the 19th July I have been taking an almost investigative interest into both the behaviour and the attitude of the public in Shops, Restaurants, Cinemas, etc, etc. The reasoning for this was simple, against a backdrop of rising case rates and hospital admissions I wasn’t convinced that government policy and public opinion were entirely aligned about the need to remove all of the protocols designed to keep people safe from infection.

Certainly, in the last couple of weeks of July there wasn’t a seismic shift in people habits, most of the High Street was still encouraging the holy trinity of mask wearing, hand sanitising and distancing and in most part, the consumer was playing their part. I spoke to a variety of people on checkouts and shop floors and anecdotally was told that 75-80% of people were observing Covid measures, a number that rose when premises were busier.

The reason I found this fascinating was because I thought the secret to High Street recovery post-pandemic was always more to do with attitude toward perceived risk, rather than the removal of restrictions. 

Fast forward to the BRC footfall report and what we find is that the numbers in July remained pretty much flat. There hasn’t been a great return to the high street in terms of feet on the street and this talks in turn to consumer confidence about the notion of shopping as a social activity. It almost seems that all high street retail is now ‘essential’ retail and ‘non-essential’ retail is a thing of the past. 

Of course this could all change very quickly, the numbers in August could look very different but at the moment I don’t sense the scales have tipped just yet. I was chatting to an established MI retailer a few days ago who is maintaining Covid protocols for the time being as he didn’t think the immediate future was clear. Many of his staff were still very concerned for their well being, particularly as in a lot of cases they had only received a single dose of the vaccine.

Which brings me to Cornwall. 

Many of the Retailers & Service Providers in Cornwall are small businesses, with only a few employees. The county has been pretty much wall-to-wall with incoming tourism since June and as you would expect most of these businesses were desperate to take advantage of the opportunity on offer. As such, I was expecting to see a more relaxed approach to guidance for consumers.

The truth was quite the reverse, with a vast majority of establishments asking customers to wear masks and sanitise. Very little of the social distancing infrastructure had been removed, and many restaurants were only accepting guests by appointment.

But what was really interesting (and refreshing) was that many were choosing to say why – making the point that by everybody helping to curb Covid transmission you were also helping to keep staff safe and ensure that the shop/cafe/petrol station/cinema remained able to open. No clever slogans, no marketing spin just an honest approach and a reasoned request for support. 

And on the whole, it worked very well, compliance was high and business was brisk. 

So what have we learned since Freedom Day? Well maybe that it’s going to take a bit longer than we perhaps thought for all of us as consumers to have the confidence to embrace that freedom. But as retailers, we can find ways of talking about these challenges with our customers and find some middle ground.

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