With nonessential retailers now given the green light by the Government to reopen on Monday June 15, one of the UK’s most famous shopping destinations is on the final countdown to getting back to business. In the West End – which incorporates Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street – around 90 per cent of shops are expected to open their doors for the first time since mid-March on Monday morning.
‘We’re so desperate now to start getting back to some kind of normality,’ says Katie Thomas, Associate Director at New West End Company, which manages London’s biggest shopping district. ‘I completely understand the underlying fears of health and safety. We’ve spent so much time in the lockdown looking at this, which actually is not that long really for bringing in entirely unheard-of measures.’
Thomas is realistic in acknowledging that next Monday won’t spark a swift return to normality. ‘I think shopping is coming back, but not as we know it, it’s not as business as usual just yet,’ she says. ‘I think the human spirit is quite robust. I don’t think we forget, but we certainly become used to new ways of going about things.’
It will be no different as we adjust to a world in which we must queue to visit our favourite stores, follow prescribed one-way systems rather than browse at leisure and, often, make a purchase without being able to try-on.
Here’s what to expect from a shopping trip to the West End from Monday…
Why you won’t always have to queue
We’ve all stood in our fair share of supermarket queues lately, so will it be the same for non-essential stores? ‘Queues are one of the biggest unknowns in lots of ways, so there is a quite detailed protocol that’s being circulated,’ explains Thomas. ‘Brands should have their own ambassador for queues so that they are specifically looking after any queue that may form.’
Shoppers will be asked to queue to the left of the store they wish to enter, and there will be markers on the street to help with this.’ Anywhere that that’s not possible because of the layout or the outside space, we’re working directly with the brands to help manage the queuing system,’ adds Thomas.
But don’t assume that queuing will always be necessary. ‘There will be far fewer people coming in. Obviously, shopping is not the necessity in the way that people have got to go for food,’ says Thomas. ‘So whilst we think that there will be people who are desperate to come back and shop and really want to enjoy that experience, we, under no circumstances, will be as busy as we have been pre-Covid.’
What makes West End stores safe
‘This is a soft, slow opening, we’re not rushing headlong into this,’ Thomas emphasises. John Lewis has decided not to open its Oxford Street store – a jewel in the street’s crown – just yet, a sign that there will be testing times ahead for city centre shopping areas which once fit seamlessly with our lifestyles, but look increasingly outdated as we settle into a new pattern of working from home and travelling less.
Nevertheless, many businesses have decided that the West End is a good place to begin.
‘Lots of the stores feel that the West End store is actually a store that they want to open almost because it’s got more space so they can put those safety measures in, there are quite young teams that work in West End stores as well,’ says Thomas, ‘and quite often they’re their best performing stores.’
There are many practical additions to the area which will help to enhance safety, these include:
- Hand sanitizing stations across the West End
- Social distancing ambassadors to help advise people or reassure anyone feeling anxious.
- Pavement markings.
- On Oxford Street, bus lay-bys will be sectioned off and on Regent Street, one traffic lane in each direction will be shut to help social distancing.
- Face masks will be given out to staff and shoppers.
- PPE disposal stations
Who will be back shopping first?
Although there are very few office workers currently in Central London who might be popping out for a new top in their lunch hour, Thomas still expects that London-based shoppers will be the first to return.
‘We know that Londoners will be the first to come back and visit because obviously they can get there easily. London has always shown to be a very resilient audience. They’ve overcome many challenges in the past, over the decades and actually centuries of visiting London and coming to the West End,’ she explains.
‘And then obviously the domestic tourists, which also has always been very strong for the West End and makes up nearly 60% of our visitors. That will be the next area we target.’
The government has introduced rules stating that anyone arriving in the UK must self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. ‘The new measures are disastrous for the British tourism industry,’ says Thomas. ‘Tourism is such a huge part of the footfall for the whole ecosystem of the West End, so it’s a really big issue for us. Generally, about 40% of money spent in the West End is international. They would generally book three months in advance and stay for a 10 day to two week period. They are high spending when they come… we can’t see when that will be picking up again.’
With Transport for London currently only able to accommodate 15 per cent of normal passenger capacity, getting to and from the West End will take planning.
It is being advised that peak times are avoided so shopping will shift to later start times. More bikes will be available for hire in the area and road closures will create extra space.
Thomas also advises walking. ‘You don’t realise that if you’re at Oxford Circus, actually, it’s a 25 minute walk to Charing Cross or a 30 minute walk to Victoria, that’s a way you might avoid going on the tube.’
The New West End company recommends that shops open from 11am until between 5pm and 7pm. This eases pressure on tube and bus services, creating a safer experience for both staff and shoppers.
How lockdown might change shopping for good
From deliveries to click and collect and how we pay for purchases, Thomas believes that the lockdown period has helped some shops to innovate at a faster pace than before.
Because shops will be quieter, too, visitors can expect a superior level of customer service. ‘The experience will be quite hand-holding [figuratively, rather than literally] and you’ll be really looked after, the stores really want to welcome people back,’ Thomas notes. ‘If you’re able to go into a stylish store that you feel inspired by, perhaps you’ve got a favourite member of staff… It will be a huge treat, seeing beautiful products. That’s what we’re craving to get back to.’