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Strong Footfall Buoys UK’s Retail Reopening—But Will it Last?

Retail stores selling clothing, shoes and other “non-essentials” in the U.K. got their long-awaited reopening Monday, and footfall came roaring back accordingly.

After a year in and out of lockdown, shops across the pond re-emerged from a third quarantine that began in January after the discovery of a highly contagious and more lethal coronavirus strain that has since spread worldwide and become the dominant Covid-19 strain in the U.S.

Springboard data says footfall across the U.K. slightly contracted ahead of Monday’s reopening, but likely for good reason.

“In what we all hope will be the final week of lockdown, footfall in U.K. retail destinations last week dipped from the week previously for only the second time since mid-January,” said Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at British traffic-tracking firm. Though adverse weather including “snow showers” likely contributed to the decline in footfall, the executive believes “shoppers were holding back on making visits in anticipation of stores reopening this week.”

Despite the dip, “footfall was more than 2.5 times higher last week than in the same week in 2020 when the U.K. was in the midst of Lockdown 1,” she added.

The hard-hit retail sector, which has seen a rash of bankruptcies and store closings that put thousands of work, is hoping to put the tumult of the past year squarely in the rearview mirror.

“Retailers are excited about welcoming back their customers,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said Sunday, adding that merchants have invested millions of dollars and “countless hours” on enhanced coronavirus safety and training measures. “The three lockdowns have cost non-food stores approximately 30 billion pounds [$41 billion] in lost sales—and [it’s] vital that they are able to make their contribution to the UK’s economic recovery.”

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With stores reopening, fashion retailers are permitted to welcome shoppers into fitting rooms, which have been closed for more than a year. Despite guidance on how many customers can occupy a store at any given time and how to properly sanitize fixtures and spaces, there’s little clarity on what to do with clothes that shoppers tried on but didn’t purchase, though John Lewis will quarantine these garments for 48 hours before returning them to the shop floor.

In the lead up to Monday’s big reboot, Marks & Spencer reported an uptick in interest around fashion. The retailer noted rising searches for spring-ready sandals and sunglasses, while the new arrivals section in women’s wear garnered the most visits anywhere on its e-commerce store.

Selfridges inaugurated the return to in-store shopping by hosting SoulCycle spin classes outside its Oxford Street flagship.

As Britain's fashion retailers get their long-awaited reopening, rising coronavirus cases are forcing new lockdowns around the globe.
People wearing face masks walk past Marks and Spencer’s window with a sticker that reads ‘Bring On Summer’ – on Grafton Street, Dublin city center, during Level 5 Covid-19 lockdown on April 7, 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. Artur Widak/NurPhoto

In a move that coincides with the reopening, John Lewis launched the affordable “Anyway” private label brand across a range of categories including baby clothes. The budget label, priced 20 percent below the retailer’s other owned brands, offers 2,400 products as of Monday’s opening day, with 1,000 new items slated to launch in the fall.

Pippa Wicks, partner and executive director at John Lewis, said the launch of Anyday “signals a step-change in the modernizing of our brand and offers customers John Lewis quality at prices they wouldn’t expect.” Wicks added that the private label—“specifically designed around how our customers live today”—aims to “challenge value perceptions of John Lewis and attract a broader group of shoppers who want to combine style and value.”

However, one retail group is already bracing for the impact of the U.K’s three quarantines. Noting the impact of coronavirus lockdowns, Frasers Group is planning a 200 million pound ($274.2 million) write-down on its properties, it said Friday, though the amount—double the 100 million pounds ($137.3 million) announced in February—”could be in excess” of that figure.

The company, whose brands include Flannels, Sports Direct, and Jack Wills, said the non-cash impairments will impact its results for the fiscal year ending in April.

Frasers noted “the continuing Government and Government advisor pronouncements regarding ‘third waves’ and normality being ‘some way off,’ meaning further restrictions are in our view almost certain.”

But if the data is any indication, consumers were pleased to resume in-store shopping. As of 5 p.m. local time on Monday, traffic to British high streets had surged more than 174 percent from the prior week, with shopping centers experiencing 217 percent more visits. Traffic to retail parks, which often are anchored by a supermarket, rose 9.8 percent, while total footfall climbed 146.2 percent week on week.

It remains to be seen if the outpouring of consumer support for non-essential retail will persist or if shoppers will return to the e-commerce channels that have been their lifeline throughout the pandemic. “While we expect an initial surge in spending when shops first open, the real test will be how this holds up,” added BRC’s Dickinson.

And though it’s hard to tell if global consumers are interested in spending not just on things but on travel, vacations, and nights out again, fashion retailers are crafting their messages to consumers with glimmers of hope on the horizon. Rent the Runway’s email missives in the past two weeks proclaim “the wedding boom is coming,” “hot party vibes” and “your vacation = booked!” Meanwhile, communiques from millennial stylesetter Revolve insist “weddings are happening” and curate outfits for weekend getaways (inset palm tree emoji). With more of the U.S. vaccinated each day, it’s clear that the nation’s fashion retailers are pinning their hopes on a return to normal that means a return to looks beyond loungewear.

But elsewhere around the globe, some nations are resorting to new lockdowns to combat alarming coronavirus infection trends.

U.K. is letting fashion retailers reopen just as new Covid cases are spiking up elsewhere in the world.
Shoppers out in full force on a high street in London after the UK allowed nonessential retailers to reopen on Monday, April 12, 2021. David Cliff/NurPhoto via AP

Belgium began a four-week lockdown on March 27, while France entered its third national lockdown at the end of March. German chancellor Angela Merkel is hoping to receive approval for another hard lockdown, while essential shops are open by appointment. Greece doesn’t expect to open its borders until mid-May. Non-essential retailers are closed in Italy, while everyone in Spain is required to wear a mask, whether indoors or outdoors.

In North America, Canada last Thursday ordered everyone to stay at home for four weeks, shutting down non-essential retailers. In the U.S., new infections are on the rise across much of the country.

Though 15 states including New York, New Jersey Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas and Hawaii plus the District of Columbia are seeing new cases decline, 35—including Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, Texas, Arizona, California, Alaska plus Puerto Rico—are battling a rise in confirmed cases.

And in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday asked schools to halt in-person learning and for residents to avoid in-person dining for the next two weeks. Whitmer has stopped short of mandating a lockdown, despite advocating for one last year at the height of the pandemic. Critics say lockdowns don’t work and only harm the economy.