The Great Re-Awakening?

One week on from the first major easing of retail (and other) restrictions from the ‘Christmas’ lockdown in Scotland and everyone is wondering how it has been and how it is going?  For some the sight of people queuing at 4.30am to get into a Primark on opening day is a symbol that all is now well in the world; for others they can think of nothing worse.

That diversity of opinion is understandable but is also indicative of a set of wider issues.  People and families have experienced very different situations and pressures in lockdown.  Retailers and sectors of retailing have had very differing experiences over the last year. These two elements collide in how towns, high streets and other retail places are perceived to be recovering or struggling.

Primark have had no sales over lockdown as they operate solely physical stores.  Others (see the food retailers especially) have seen a huge spike in online sales and a boost generally.  Clothing and footwear as sectors have struggled as workwear (and indeed some general clothing and footwear) have not been needed.  Book sales on the contrary seem to have had a bounce in lockdown reading, not only with Amazon but also online and independent booksellers doing well.  Some families have been fine working from home; others have lost their jobs.

This all makes me suspicious of any rush to assessment of how we are doing and what we need to do. It is great news that the first week in Scotland seems positive. But, this is a re-awakening from a long period of slumber.  Some retailers won’t have made it; others are opening new stores in anticipation of an opportunity and a positive rebound.  Consumers will be either delighted to get back into shops or nervous about the thought.  Confidence for retailers and consumers will take some time to build, develop and consolidate.

All of this points to a quite uncertain period as we all learn what we can do safely and what we want to do, whilst with one eye on not having to lockdown again, and worries that the novelty of going shopping perhaps reduces.  Getting to a consistent point of stability and more certainty is not going to be achieved in a week, or I suspect in a month, or even two.

Then there is the issue of eventually learning what has changed temporarily and what has changed permanently.  If working from home and international travel permanently alter patterns of behaviour then our major cities will be heavily affected negatively whereas some smaller towns may (may) be boosted.  This is not likely to be a rapidly resolved conundrum.

It is for all these reasons I prefer the term re-awakening than re-opening.  We have been in forced hibernation; it will take time to know how we are all affected by something so unusual.  And during this time, we will need to continue to support those who are struggling to re-awaken, both citizens and businesses.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
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4 Responses to The Great Re-Awakening?

  1. Spot on as always Leigh! The obsession with the media to extrapolate footfall and retail sales data from the first week or two of post-lockdown opening (and following a completely unique period for both the retail sector and shoppers) and use this to come to any conclusion about might happen in a few weeks or months time is dangerous!
    I have been three unknown to any and all who will listen. We don’t yet know whether all retailers who can now reopen will choose to do so; we don’t yet know whether shoppers will choose to start visiting shops again – and if so how quickly; we don’t know whether the savings some of the population has accrued over the past year will be spent or saved and there are of coarse millions across the UK whose financial and job security is in a very precarious position and where consumer confidence is very low.
    I agree with you that it might take months before we have any real idea as to whether and how quickly retail and other sectors might recover. Your reawakening after hibernation analogy is perfect.

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