'It couldn't go on any longer': Scotland's retailers prepare for re-opening
For Lynne Roberts, owner of a small Italian ceramics shop in Edinburgh’s New Town, tomorrow’s lockdown easing can not come soon enough.
"It couldn’t go on any longer,” says former sales manager Ms Roberts, who quit her job and dipped into her savings to open Salento in January last year.
Just two months later, the world went into lockdown and she was forced to close.
"I had been looking at the retail sector for such a long time, wondering when was the best time to open, then I took the plunge and this happened,” she says.
“I spent a six-figure sum opening the shop. I put all the money I ever had in the bank into it, all the money my partner had – and my house is secured against it.
"Because I had only just opened, I got almost no government support and I didn’t even have a proper website, so I’ve hardly been able to sell anything while I’ve been closed.”
Now Ms Roberts is spring cleaning her store ahead of her second re-opening in a year tomorrow morning, lining up brightly coloured pots on the shelves, taking down Christmas decorations she put up before Scotland’s second lockdown in December and setting out hand sanitiser and a mandatory sign stating that only two customers at a time can enter the store.
It is the first time that shops deemed non-essential retail have been allowed to open since Boxing Day.
Ms Roberts says: "I am excited, but I am extremely worried.
"I’m hoping there’s going to be a rush of people who have got a lot of money to spend that they haven’t been able to spend while everything is closed.
"Another lockdown would be extremely grave for me. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed. I can’t wait to sell my lovely things to customers again.”
At Stirling’s Thistles shopping centre, retailers are gearing up for tomorrow’s opening.
Shop workers can be seen putting the finishing touches to hand sanitiser stations at the entrance to each unit and centre owners are testing the tannoy systems, which issue constant reminders to people to social distance.
It is a welcome return to normality for retailers.
However, mandatory face coverings and one-way systems at peak periods curbing the usual aimless wandering that was once a hallmark of a leisurely shopping trip is a constant reminder to shoppers that everything is not normal.
Few rules have changed since last time shops were allowed to open, bar a Scottish Government requirement for a sign to be displayed stating the safe capacity of a store.
“We’re asking people to use their common sense,” says centre manager Gary Turnbull.
“We wouldn’t expect people to wander round in groups of eight. That would cause mayhem for both inside the shops and the centres.”
Thistles has remained open throughout the pandemic, to allow access to ten retailers which were deemed essential, such as food outlets, opticians and pharmacists.
"It’s nice to feel the centre re-energising itself with all of the stores coming back on board,” says Mr Turnbull, who has extended opening hours later into the evening to allow people who do not yet feel comfortable in crowds to shop at quieter times.
“Everybody is so excited to be coming back to their work.”
Since it was last open before Christmas, however, the centre – like others across Scotland – has lost some key retail units.
They include the Debenhams department store, one of its anchor units, and a number of brands from the Arcadia stable, including Topshop, Burtons and Dorothy Perkins, all of which fell into administration.
Topshop has now moved online only, having been snapped up by internet shopping giant Asos in February.
Mr Turnbull says: "It’s hard to tell how it is going to be, but I think the public wants that interaction and the chance to take their time.
"For so long now, shopping has been a case of running in, getting your food and going home, that people are looking forward to shopping normally and browsing.”
He adds: “I think, however, people are going to have to put their money where their mouth is if they want other brands to remain on the high street.”
Peter Beagley, centre manager of Braehead shopping centre in Glasgow, is anticipating high demand from customers.
The centre will open two hours earlier than normal tomorrow morning. He believes fashion stores will be the most popular on reopening day.
“As lockdown restrictions ease, people are able to socialise more and visit cafes, bars and restaurants, so they’ll be looking to update their wardrobes to look their best for their new-found freedom,” he says.
“Everyone is desperate to get back to some kind of normality and being able to go shopping is a sign of that.”
However, a report published by KPMG earlier this week warned there was a “long and potentially very challenging road ahead” for Scottish retail, after figures showed a 14 per cent drop in sales compared to March 2019 – before the pandemic began.
Attitudes vary between individual retailers as to whether customers can try on clothes.
Some are opening changing rooms complete with complicated 72-hour quarantine procedures for garments which are tried on and subsequently not bought – while others will close their fitting rooms entirely.
Also in Glasgow, at Silverburn shopping centre, the centre owners are running a campaign to encourage shoppers to use contactless payment methods where possible – and to avoid shopping in large groups.
An app has been launched to allow shoppers to check how busy the centre is at the time they plan to visit, in a bid to spread out the number of customers to avoid crowds.
The centre is also home to one of three new “beauty halls” to be launched by national chemist chain Boots in Scotland tomorrow, with two others based at Fort Kinnaird and Gyle Shopping Centre in Edinburgh.
Previously focused on traditional make-up counters to serve its customers, the retailer has had to adapt to not only Covid-safe rules, but a new attitude to shopping adopted by those now accustomed to almost-infinite choice online.
The company has removed traditional beauty counters at the new beauty halls and replaced them with “trending zones”, “discovery areas” and “live demonstration areas”.
Customers can also get brand-neutral advice from Boots beauty specialists, instead of dealing with assistants employed by specific cosmetics firms.
In a move away from pre-Covid communal testers, at the new beauty counters, customers can test fragrances and makeup touch-free, with disposable applicators dispensed by a beauty advisor.
David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, is optimistic, but cautious about the future for the sector.
Clothing retailer Primark announced record sales in the week after it was allowed to reopen in England and Wales earlier this month.
“It has been 122 days since stores in Scotland were last allowed to open and for those which were in level four at the end of last year, it is longer than that,” he says.
“There is a sense that there is some kind of pent-up demand, but there is also a question as to how sustainable it will be.
"It will be a learning process over the coming weeks. The other issue is that people have become accustomed to shopping online, so to what extent will that continue?
"Our hunch is that online will continue, but not to the same extent that it did during lockdown.”