Nikki Gardiner, Regional Manager of Specsavers Northern Ireland, reminds us to trust the retailers on the road to recovery for the NI highstreet and shopping centres.
When the Stormont Executive announced that all non-essential services and retail could open, the notice period was short. Some retailers will take their time to ensure that they can do what they do safely but how much time is too much time? At what stage can we say they have missed the boat? Is there even a boat?
At the moment, there is a delicate balance to be struck between not being seen to be profiteering but also saving your business and livelihood. There is the rate free period, property deals to be done, the furlough scheme and some grants but all of this somewhat masks the untold damage not only to individual retailers but to the retail sector as a whole and the need to get open for business is growing by the day.
So, what does the future hold?
No one knows at this point (except of course the Facebook certified expert in infectious diseases: they know!) but what we do know is that those retailers who control the controllable and seize the opportunity will prosper. This is by no means a new message from me when I talk about business but let me apply it specifically to the context of the situation, we find ourselves in as retailers right now.
Firstly, for the first time since the pandemic began, customers will be coming out of their houses into our retail landscape for perhaps nothing more than a nosey. We have moved away from heading to the shops because you need to buy groceries, pick up medication, or avail of some other urgent or essential service. For the most part, consumers have some cash burning a hole in their pocket and they want to spend it. The fact that we are heading into the worst recession in our generation has not yet hit home in a lot of cases and for the humble shopkeeper, this is a great thing. In short, there is business to be done and demand is there.
Second, failure to prepare is to prepare to fail. Many stores have been closed for weeks but that should not have meant a three-month holiday for the retailers. Those who have been busy in the background understanding how social distancing will work, putting screens in place, sourcing PPE and learning what their new customer journey will look like will come out of the blocks fast and take advantage of the pent up consumer demand. Those who have been getting ready on the blocks for the starting gun have had to waste no time getting back open for their loyal customers. Businessmen like Chris Suitor from Suitor brothers, Robinsons Goldsmiths in Bangor and the much-loved Wardens and Cordners in Newtownards have caught my eye as those who came out of the blocks strong and were ready to welcome their loyal customers back. For the retailers who have been caught napping for the last twelve weeks or focusing on things they cannot control, well sadly I feel that their long-term fate may be different.
Thirdly, PR and the right sort of PR has never been more important. Sports Direct ended up with egg on their face in March by deeming themselves an essential retailer at a time when peoples focus was 100% on saving lives and understanding this new killer that we couldn’t see, smell or touch. However, they have now launched their campaign where NHS workers get 50% off everything instore. A generous offering or a cover up? Either way, it’s likely to hit the spot for the conscience of the majority of shoppers.
Primark will be acutely aware of the PR opportunity or brand damaging risk that awaits them, and they certainly did not rush the doors open in NI. As a volume driven business and one of the nation’s favourites (don’t pretend you don’t buy your socks there) their reopening was high profile and risky. McDonalds was in a similar situation and did a lot of work engaging with local police, councils and the public to ensure the safest possible experience. A Big Mac has never tasted so good, am I right? (However, after writing this I have seen the crowds outside Pennys (Primark) in Ireland. Their fault? Perhaps not, but could they have done more to control it? Absolutely)
So, what can we ask of our loyal customers other than to stay at home if they have symptoms, wash their hands while singing happy birthday, stay two meters apart from each other and do what is best for them and their own circumstances? I have two suggestions here.
Firstly, ask them to trust the us as retailers. Shopkeepers have put days and hours of thought into how to bring the public and colleagues back safely and let’s face it, we have never been in this situation before. Their livelihoods depend on it and whilst the virus is still here, we need to get the economy moving.
Secondly ask them to be kind! Not every retailer will get it right first time. It is my hope that if a customer sees something that isn’t quite right or an opportunity to do better, rather than taking out their phone and shaming them on social media, they speak to the Manager to raise their concerns in a constructive manner. No one is deliberately doing it wrong and we are all learning together. So, my advice for the coming weeks is let’s get after it and welcome back our lovely loyal customers with physically distant open arms while they get out ‘for a nosey’.
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