The UK Government recently confirmed that most non-essential shops in England are due to reopen from 15 June onwards, so long as they can comply with social distancing measures. This change is part of the gradual relaxation of lockdown measures set out in the Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May. Although many people—including those who are elderly or immunocompromised—are unlikely to visit these shops anytime soon, a poll conducted last week by Redfield & Wilton strategies found that as many as 48% of respondents would feel safe shopping in June.
This figure is higher among those who identify as male (56% would feel safe), and among those respondents who voted Conservative (55%) or Liberal Democrat (54%) in the 2019 General Election. On the other hand, 60% of female respondents said they would feel unsafe shopping in June, and so did 59% of respondents who voted Labour in 2019.
Among those who feel unsafe shopping in June, the great majority (83%) would not alter their view even if a Government SAGE adviser indicated that it is safe for the public to visit shops. This defiance suggests an abundance of caution, as it is likely that a high proportion of these respondents are elderly or immunocompromised (or live with someone in those categories), and thus likely to take additional precautions as compared to the general population. Indeed, respondents who were in the 45-54 age range, for example, were twice as likely as those in the 65+ range to feel safe visiting a non-essential shop if they were told by a SAGE adviser that it is safe to do so (26% versus 13%).
Respondents indicated that they would go back to visiting non-essential shops at different timelines following their reopening. Whereas 45% of respondents say they would likely visit such a shop within the first month of reopening, a significant 22% answered that they would wait several months, and 9% indicated they would wait until 2021. Once again, this difference in comfort had a relationship to age: only 3% of those ages 18-24 would wait until 2021, compared to 15% of those ages 55-64.
These are encouraging numbers for UK shop owners, as they suggest they might recover roughly half of their pre-coronavirus traffic levels (and hopefully sales) within the first month of reopening. Indeed, the staged pace of customers’ return to shopping will mean that shops will have time to adapt their premises to social distancing measures, and that they might be able to avoid long queues outside their premises even if social distancing measures are enforced. Conversely, these figures also point to the importance for retailers of e-commerce and offering home delivery for the products they sell, so that they can reach the 52% of respondents who would not immediately feel safe stepping into their premises.
For the Government and its scientific advisers, the challenge will be to communicate to that 52% of respondents the reasons why they consider it safe to visit non-essential shops from 15 June onwards, paying attention to the unique circumstances of different populations. Given the wide range of people’s ages and health circumstances, it is unlikely that everyone will feel safe visiting shops in the near future, but it is an important step that 48% of respondents already feel safe to go shopping in June. This step will allow others to ‘wait and see’ that it is safe (if indeed it is), and eventually return to the shops themselves.