Coronavirus: What will a post-lockdown high street look like?
High streets in England are preparing to reopen from Monday as lockdown restrictions continue to ease. We visited Bury St Edmunds to see how shops there are preparing to welcome back customers.
‘We started with appointment only’
Jo and Derek Hailstone run Mick’s Cycles in St John’s Street. They celebrated the shop’s 50th birthday during lockdown and continued to service bikes in that time.
“We closed the shop for a couple of weeks at the start but more and more people contacted us wanting to buy a bike or wanting renovations to existing bikes,” said Jo.
“So we started doing ‘appointment only’.”
Visitors are limited to two at a time and social distancing measures are in place, as well as hand sanitiser stations and personal protective equipment (PPE). The need to touch items and try out the “fit” of bikes is important – so everything is wiped down afterwards.
Jo added: “We’ve found a lot of people don’t like masks because it’s hard to connect with people.”
‘It’s not going to be normal’
Record store manager Will Hunter, who runs Vinyl Hunter on the same street, is holding off reopening until the first week of July.
“Buying records is literally one of the most tactile things,” he said. “Our customers love the whole experience of coming in and learning. Online is never quite like that – I don’t even like buying records online.
“I never wanted to run an online shop but it’s paid the bills for now.”
He said customers will be given gloves to use while browsing and a screen will be in place at the till. He is concerned things could change again.
“I want to see what happens when everyone else opens. For us, it’s pretty straight forward – we can operate a one in, one out policy.
“None of this is ideal, it’s not going to be normal, we’re a community space and we can’t be that now.”
‘This is a huge learning curve’
Sylwia Chrostowska runs a tailoring business on St John’s Street. Business started to dry up about a week before lockdown as people became more worried.
She won’t be able to offer the full tailoring experience when she hopefully reopens on Monday but will be wearing gloves to reassure people it’s safe to come back.
“We want people to be comfortable so we’re going to offer flexibility. Sometimes we need to touch people, it’s a face-to-face experience and we were worried about how to provide that.”
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Numbers entering the shop will be limited and alterations will not be touched for 72 hours once they are dropped off, to help prevent any potential spread of the virus.
“It won’t be the same,” she said. “This is a huge learning curve. But we’re looking forward to coming back. People are knocking on the door already asking when we’re reopening.”
‘Reopening is a sigh of relief’
Ellie Pimbley is the marketing manager of the Arc shopping centre, which holds 32 big-name stores. About 40% will reopen over the course of a week.
The centre will keep to a capacity of 800 people on the main concourses and operate a one-in, one-out system thereafter.
“Retail has really been struggling but this is a good step in the right direction. It’s a sigh of relief,” said Ellie.
“Each store is putting their own measures in place, from limiting numbers to the wearing of masks and social distancing. Public toilets will be closed. We are pushing contactless payments where possible.”
Chris Ward is the manager of Debenhams in the shopping centre and will “unfurlough” some of its 80 employees.
The store will operate “similar to supermarkets”, with limited numbers, social distancing ticketing, protective screens and PPE for staff. Toilets and changing areas will not be reopened initially.
“Our primary goal is the safety of both customers and colleagues, with minimal impact on the shopping experience,” he said.
“The customer service element is so important to us, but it’s about striking the balance between keeping things as normal and as safe as possible for customers and colleagues.”
‘There is a bit of trepidation’
Mark Cordell, chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds, oversees the interests of the town’s 200 independent businesses, or 55% of its trade. He says the town prides itself on its independence.
“These are exciting times but there is a bit of trepidation,” he said. “The challenge for most is to decide what level of trade they can anticipate in order to release staff off furlough.
“This period of lockdown has given many the chance to reflect on their business models – and to see whether customers will come through the door or stay online.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by their positive response. But it’s not going to be a huge reopening event. We need to manage expectations.”
Photographs: Laurence Cawley and John Fairhall.