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With the UK Government’s lockdown measures easing further from next week, and all non-essential shops given a provisional green light to recommence trading from 15 June, one question remains: is the British public up for it?
From Monday 1 June, car showrooms and open-air markets will be allowed to re-open. Everything else, from bookshops to boutiques, will be able to trade a fortnight later, as long as the Government is happy with progress in tackling the virus.
There’s still no word on when pubs, bars and restaurants might be allowed to welcome guests again but as Chancellor Rishi Sunak is on record saying, “This country can't be the only place in the world where people can't go and have a drink in the pub”, it might not, perhaps, be long.
The problem is, even if the high street does come back to life, there’s little evidence that consumers, as a body, are keen to get back to the fray.
A recent Ipsos MORI poll, based on interviews conducted in mid-May, found that:
And who can blame them? Reassurance is hard to find.
In the early days, back in March and April – which feels like a lifetime ago – pundits were able to point to relatively reassuring statistics on the progress of the virus in the UK.
Now, even though the peak has apparently passed, hundreds of deaths are still being reported daily and, in many important ways, nothing much seems to have changed.
There is no vaccine imminent. There is no universally recognised treatment, despite promising developments. Three months on, we have no contact tracing to speak of and a testing regime that feels flaky at best.
What is comforting is that after some restrictions were loosened earlier this month, despite anxiety caused by an apparent stampede of stir-crazy people to beaches and parks, the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 continues to fall, as do hospital admissions.
What we see elsewhere in Europe is also somewhat soothing, not to mention envy-inducing: German beer gardens are back in business, albeit with distancing measures, while open-air dining is back on the shores of the Mediterranean.
And so far, Germany seems to have kept the virus under control even with shops and restaurants open. The all important R-number – the rate at which infections are passed from one person to others – has stayed stable, even if it keeps wobbling up to around one, especially in Berlin.
With stability, confidence improves. High street footfall in Germany has begun to creep up – from down 90% on the norm at the end of April to down 40% now – as have restaurant bookings, which are still 60% down but constantly improving.
The Ipsos MORI poll also reveals that UK consumer confidence is steadily creeping upward, too, with improvements almost across the board compared to the previous survey.
Perhaps because they know government support schemes won’t last forever, British businesses certainly seem ready to give it a go. On a walk round the block this morning I saw evidence of hairdressers, cafes and shops undergoing refit to make distancing easier when they do eventually open.
But all of this leads to a second question: even when we feel safe on the high street, will we have the inclination? Even those who weren’t convinced by online shopping and delivery have been forced to give it a go and there’s evidence that eCommerce is booming, even as other sectors are on their knees.
Once consumers are convinced it’s safe to venture out, what will your business offer that will tempt them over the threshold?