What I’ve taken from the first 72 hours of our return to stores 

When we deem something ‘non-essential’, it usually means we’re really not that bothered about it.  We could take it or leave it.  At best, it’s a nice to have, right?

Turns out, if you take ‘non-essential retail’ and, quite rightly in a global pandemic, stop access to it for about three months, a lot of people really miss it.  So much so that, when it re-opens, you’d be forgiven for thinking it looks a bit like, dare I say it, Christmas – with media coverage featuring excitement and queueing in abundance.

Of course, it’s important to note, early footfall data suggests it’s been a very cautious welcome back for stores, some commentators suggesting slightly up on modest retailer expectations at best but nowhere near ‘usual’ rates.  Despite this view from the figures, crack-of-dawn queuing outside stores such as Primark filled our news feeds from early on Monday.  Quotes from interviewees cited everything from ‘the kids haven’t stopped growing, you know?’ to ‘I just really need clothes for a new job’ as reasons for our keenness to shop.  Proof to a certain extent that, even during the most disrupted and unnerving of times, everyday life does indeed go on.

From a comms perspective, as with most things, it was all in the planning.  Many stores and shopping centres profited from adopting a pre-opening proactive comms approach.  Giving the media and consumers a ‘sneak peek’ into the health and safety measures being put in place proved a valuable play in delivering positive coverage, encouraging customer confidence and – having already covered off the hygiene factors (literally) before opening – also left room to land broader messaging about retailer plans for opening hours and events as the week went on.

On the flip side, while we’ve all got used to taking a stroll in our local green spaces, some retail brands have found re-opening to be anything but a walk in the park.  Reports of crowds pushing and shoving their way into Nike Town made headlines, as did a petition for Bicester Village to be closed temporarily, citing concerns around the ability for shoppers to social distance.  One thing is very clear from the last 72 hours – some consumers and retail staff may be excited by the return of physical shopping, but they are also holding retailers to account, behaving as citizen journalists, and reporting on their experiences from the front-line.

Overall, I’m hopeful for physical retail that, despite all the challenges facing the sector even before the Covid-19 crisis, at the most basic human level many of us have been reminded during this time that we see a role for, and actually really enjoy, a visit to the shops.  The task for retailers will be to both reassure consumers over the coming weeks that they are providing safe environments in the now while using this opportunity to quickly innovate and communicate a physical experience that’s fit for the future.