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Retailers 'confused' by government's latest lockdown guidance

The continued lack of clarity surrounding the government’s non-essential retail store reopening advice has left the fashion industry in a “perilous position”, the industry has told Drapers. 

Today the government confirmed the likely “phased” reopening of non-essential retail stores in England from 1 June.

However, details were still scarce and it failed to break down the timings for independent retailers, shopping centres and retail parks. The government has said it will issue further guidance “shortly” on the approach that will be taken to phasing, including which businesses will be covered in each phase and the timeframes involved.

“Retailers desperately need clarity in the rules regarding when and how they can open – details that are still lacking,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium. “Safety must be the primary concern in these decisions, rather than size or type of shop.”

The former chief executive of one high street retailer agreed that the timetable for store reopening “lacks in detail”: “It is scant in detail, and therefore confuses more people than it has helped.

“It also doesn’t help whatsoever not having a joined-up message with the other countries in the UK. Most retailers will have stores in each those different places and that is wholly unhelpful.” 

In contrast to England, Scotland and Wales have both extended lockdowns. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon warned last week that a lifting of restrictions would be “very,very risky”, as she announed that Scotland’s coronavirus lockdown would be extended.

The devolved government in Northern Ireland is considering a plan for a phased exit to the lockdown today. 

Simon Carter, founder and owner of the eponymous British menswear business, agreed the guidelines are “confusing”, but thinks his store reopenings will be included in the “first wave”: “I think we’ve always worked to the assumption that our shops would reopen in June or early July.

“As all our shops are under 1,000 sq ft, we think we will be in the first ‘wave’. However, I will not compel my managers to reopen, and so we are in early dialogue with them, as well as risk assessing the shops on an individual basis.”

Meanwhile, several independents across the UK have also called for more information on the store reopening timeline and social-distancing measures.

Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira (the British Independent Retailers Association), said: “We were hoping for more detail so that shops can properly prepare for reopening as from the 1 June (at the earliest). The government talk is about a phased opening of shops and we would like to see more information.”

He added: “I am keen to understand the guidelines for fashion/clothing stores and the return of goods – how they are managed and if the goods can be re-sold.”

The managing director of one Suffolk-based independent would also like more information: “I am afraid the continued lack of clarity and a plan –  whilst I have huge sympathy for the decision-makers – is leaving the fashion industry in particular in a perilous position.

“I have spoken to several independent business owners this weekend and they are all talking of winding up in the face of incredible pressure.”

Meanwhile, many UK-based independents have said that, although they will be ready to reopen their stores at the beginning of June, they are feeling nervous about doing so.

Roo Cross, owner of fashion and lifestyle independent Roo’s Beach in north Cornwall, said: “We can definitely reopen at the beginning of June – our customers are really wanting us to. As long as we can keep staff safe and keep social distancing, and people can trust that they can access store without putting themselves in danger.”

She added: “I think everyone’s nervous about reopening – for a lot of us retailers, we’ve had to run everything single handedly [during the pandemic] so we don’t lose everything we put into our business.”

Darren Hoggett, founder and owner of J&B Menswear in Norwich, East Anglia, agreed: “I’m not personally worried about reopening in June, but I can understand why a lot of people are.

“We are an independent family business, so it might be different for other businesses that decide to open. We know customers personally and we will implement any guidelines needed. We can work around that easily.

“Everyone has to make the guidelines clear, whether small or big, that they cannot allow a deluge of people into the store.

“I know there are others who are cautious and worried right now, and I don’t blame them. I feel sorry for the people who have to go back to working in stores that aren’t easy to manage.”

However, Olivier Lievre, owner of womenswear boutique Olivier’s Lounge in Wandsworth, south London, said: “With how easy it is to control the flow of people in a small boutique, I feel like we could have opened in the middle of May.

“We could have done ’one in, one out’, supplying hand sanitizer and steaming clothes to get rid of any risk of any infection.

“At least if we can start reopening on 1 June, we can have two months of selling full-priced stock.”

More guidelines for businesses are expected to be published this evening and tomorrow. 

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