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Retail experts weigh in on the cost of reopening the British high street

Britain's retailers are reopening, but the high street will look very different

Recent months have seen dramatic changes in the British retail landscape, with high-street mainstays including Oasis, Cath Kidston and Brighthouse falling into administration after the UK government enforced nationwide lockdowns in March.

Monday (15 June) marked the reopening of many non-essential businesses in England. However, with health and safety restrictions against coronavirus still firmly in place, many businesses will have to think carefully about their return to the shop front.

Not only will physical stores have to consider the pros and cons of safety for both staff and customers, they will also have to question whether the cost of reopening physically outweighs the benefits of expanding their online offerings, says retail expert Claire Bailey.

Speaking on a panel at The Drum’s Can-Do festival, Bailey said: “The common theme is most people are concerned about 15 June [today], as we are expecting to see a number of non-essential businesses reopen, but the questions for many is, is that wise?

“It puts up your cost base if you have to start incurring staff or even paying electricity bills. Yes, you may have stock to sell, but would you be better off operating micro-distribution centres for local orders? Would you be better off communicating with the local community through Facebook and selling through channels like that? Would you be better off offering click and collect deliveries rather than trying to offer a full experience? Because that experience is going to be so impaired.”

Jack Izzard is director of The Great British Bounce Back, an online community for small businesses seeking support and guidance during and after lockdown. He believes that the adaptations many businesses have made so far will be key to them surviving in this next phase, whether they plan to reopen physically or not.

“Pivoting will be absolutely key and we've seen some great examples of that already on a large scale. For example, Leon, operating mini supermarkets, but also on a local level, like my local pub which is now a dry goods store.”

“We'll see lots of cross-pollination going forward. Certainly, at The Great British Bounce Back we’ve seen lots of examples of people who have been forced to react quickly, and quite often they’re being pushed into a totally different direction than what they had planned to.”

However, he said: “Reopening physically will be challenging for many, and we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the task that people will face when they do reopen their doors.“

With the restrictive measures in place, he said “we shouldn't kid ourselves for a second that they will reopen their doors and it will look anything like business as usual.”

Going forward, both Bailey and Izzard agreed that businesses taking steps to establish themselves as hubs in their local communities is a good option, whether they plan to reopen physically or not.

“What’s particularly interesting about this shift to stores moving online, is, we’re going to see a permanent change in consumer behaviour” said Bailey, using the example of her local farm shop, which has shifted online to deliver fruit and veg boxes within the local community.

“Not only has it maintained its customer base, but it has also grown it and won some goodwill along the way.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, but with the foreseeable future set to be an uncertain time for retail, businesses and consumers alike will be forced to make choices about how and where they spend their money.

Bailey and Izzard spoke with The Drum's executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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