In a recent survey, going out for dinner is top of the list for British consumers post lockdown. However, even when the current restrictions are lifted, dining is likely to be a very different experience.
Picture this: On arriving at the restaurant, the maitre d’ asks for your full name and contact details to keep on file for the Government’s contact tracing requirements. When seated at your table, the waiter assures you that the tablecloth, seat, and candle have all been disinfected. You look around and the nearest couple are a good two meters away – a welcome development. To reduce contact with the waiting staff, instructions are on the table explaining how to order on the restaurant’s new menu app; and when your food arrives, it is placed on the service table next to you. You order a bottle of wine, which you pour yourself. You pay via the app and leave.
For an industry that prides itself on hospitality, making service shine in this sterile environment will be a challenge. These adjustments will be replicated in high streets across the country, with retail needing to limit the numbers in stores, ensure strict social distancing when shopping, and staff shielded behind acrylic screens at check out. Supermarkets have been heroic in adapting to Covid-19 and the Government should be looking at how this best practice can be scaled up around the country.
However, there are supply chain issues for putting these measures in place en masse with shortages of PPE, disinfectant, and now even acrylic. The much-discussed exit strategy will need to give retail and hospitality businesses significant lead in time to prepare. There is little point stores reopening if suppliers have been unable to produce stock, staff are still on furlough and not had training on new safety requirements, and PPE is unavailable to protect them.
We also don’t know the long-term impacts of our forced isolation and whether people will brave the masses to return to their old shopping habits. Online shopping was rapidly increasing even before covid-19, and this experience will likely accelerate that trend.
From an industry perspective, Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on retail, which was already experiencing a tough and competitive trading environment. The latest ONS data showed a historic 5.1% dip in the volume of retail sales in March 2020, the largest fall since the monthly updates began more than 30 years ago. Sales of clothing and shoes has taken the most significant hit, with sales plunging 34.8%. Recent businesses that have gone into administration include Oasis, Warehouse, Debenhams and Cath Kidston. Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group is also informing landlords it intends to walk away from more than 100 stores by the end of the summer. Covid-19 has served as a tipping point for many retailers in financial turmoil.
The Government must look to give further support to retail businesses as soon as possible to ensure that when we emerge from our houses, we still have thriving high streets to return to. In the short term, the Government should develop a rescue package for retail and hospitality and look to building consumer confidence.
In the longer term, the Government will need to undertake a fundamental system change for how we tax businesses. A call for evidence on business rates will soon be published – however the Government will need to be much bolder if the high street is to meet the challenges of the coming decade and thrive in the years to come.