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Indies 'anxious' about store reopenings

Irish independents have raised concerns that it is “too soon” to reopen stores in June, while footwear and tailoring businesses across the UK fear they will struggle to operate when coronavirus lockdown measures are lifted.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this weekend extended the lockdown in Ireland for another two weeks to 18 May, but also revealed the country’s five-stage plan to exit it.

Small retail outlets that are able to observe social distancing will be allowed to reopen on 8 June, while other non-essential retail outlets will be able to open on 29 June, and shopping centres will follow on 10 August.

However, this has raised concerns among fashion independents in Ireland.

“We’re obviously keen to get stores up and running once again for commercial reasons, but I think the early timing of this has started to cause some concern among store owners and staff”, the owner of a chain of independent stores across Ireland told Drapers. “There is certainly anxiety about the safety measures that will be required. Some independent clothing businesses had already been preparing their retail environment for reopening, introducing Perspex screens, floor markings and masks for both staff and customers. However, there is a realisation that we’re not going to defeat this virus in time to kick-start things again in total safety.” 

Rachel Benson, owner of womenswear independent Glowing Girlies in Limerick City, agreed: “It worries me about opening up so soon. I think a lot of small businesses are still in the unknown phase. We are still unsure if we will even open back up [on 8 June]. A lot of planning is going on to see how and if we can safely do so. It’s such a tricky situation.”

She added: “The opening time isn’t the [biggest] problem here, I don’t think. I think the problem will be businesses being allowed to open without proper guidelines. I think strict guidelines need to be issued to the public and businesses: to businesses so they can implement them and to the public so they understand why businesses are doing them.

“We sell evening dresses and they are always tried on before buying. We don’t even know if the virus could pass from one person trying on a dress to the next person trying it on. Any other clothing store owners I have spoken to are mostly concerned with how close we and our staff get to customers when helping them in and out of dresses. This is a major issue we need to face before reopening.”

David Fitzsimons, group chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland, a not-for-profit company that supports Irish retailers, said there is no benefit to reopening clothing stores if customers are not permitted to try on items.  

“Countries such as Canada have reopened stores but have prohibited trying on clothing,” he argues. “That protocol is worrying as it makes it very difficult to operate bricks and mortar. Touching and feeling the clothes is the biggest selling point – consumers will just keep shopping online if those strategies are implemented in the UK and Ireland.”

Meanwhile, independent retailers across the UK specialising in bespoke, tailoring and lingerie have echoed these concerns.

“We offer a high level of service using fitting stools, shoehorns and assisting the customer, so we will be more impacted [by social distancing]”, the managing director of one UK-based footwear independent told Drapers. 

To cope with the new likely distancing measures, he said: “We have ordered face shields for all staff as we think they are a better option than face masks, and are reusable if sanitised. We will modify the level of service by removing fitting stools and asking customers to use the shoehorns themselves.”

Simon Whitaker, chief executive of menswear and tailoring independent Master Debonair said the distancing measures will “no doubt have a bigger impact on the tailoring side of our business”.

The main challenge will be alterations, which he is awaiting government guidance on. However, the impact of social distancing on events season will also play a large part.

“There won’t be any race events this year, few proms and fewer weddings so 100% tailoring sales will be effected,” he said. “I’ve kept our online business running myself and we’ve seen casualwear sales at a lower sales rate.

“We will be putting stringent social distancing measures into our shops so we can re-open. We’ll limit the number of staff and customers in the shop. It may mean that we only open each shop five days per week and have one person in each department.”

Eloise Rigby, owner of Islington lingerie independent The Pantry underwear said she was concerned that social distancing could affect consumer spend on lingerie once the lockdown is lifted. 

“I am concerned that when we are allowed reopen we will be at the bottom of the list when it comes to shopping. It’s no secret that the majority of British women dread acquiring a bra, and when physical interaction must be restricted, it only strengthens the de-prioritisation of the category,” she told Drapers.

However, having already had to adapt to provide online fittings and remote services, Rigby said the business will adapt by placing “more emphasis on education around finding the optimum fit for the individual. 

”The experience will look different, but it won’t feel different and actually our mission to educate women as to how to tell whether a bra fits or not for themselves, will, I believe, be delivered more effectively. The bra fitter will be able to observe but won’t necessarily be able to take over when it comes to determining fit.”

The government is due to outline the UK’s exit strategy from lockdown on Sunday

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