Long lines at London stores mark reopenings after COVID-19 lockdown

Victoria Craig and Stephen Ryan Jun 15, 2020
Heard on:
With nonessential stores reopening in England on Monday, people will have to get used to shopping in the age of the coronavirus. Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Long lines at London stores mark reopenings after COVID-19 lockdown

Victoria Craig and Stephen Ryan Jun 15, 2020
Heard on:
With nonessential stores reopening in England on Monday, people will have to get used to shopping in the age of the coronavirus. Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Three months of border restrictions across the European continent are being relaxed today as part of the European Union’s plan to help restore badly damaged economies by welcoming visitors from neighboring nations.

President Emmanuel Macron has declared France’s first victory over the virus, and while cafes are fully reopened, he warned the virus could return. The country’s finance minister has also encouraged people to continue working from home if they can.

In England, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is urging the public to shop with confidence as thousands of stores throw open their doors for the first time since March.

BBC headquarters sit at the top of one of London’s biggest shopping corridors, so producer Stephen Ryan and host Victoria Craig of the global edition of the “Marketplace Morning Report” took a walk this morning to see how things are shaping up in the new era of retail and commerce. The following is an edited transcript of their conversations with shoppers.

Victoria Craig: We’re taking a walk down Regent Street, and it would normally be pretty packed this time of the morning. We’ve been passing stores like H&M, which has hand sanitizing stations inside. The Nike store has a line around the corner. We’re down by the Apple store at the moment, which has, I don’t know, probably half a dozen people in line waiting to get in there.

Outside of the Nike flagship London store on Oxford Street. (Stephen Ryan)

We’re coming up now to the flagship shop of UK bookselling giant Waterstones. This particular shop is the biggest in Europe. And, at the moment, there are six people in line.

We’ll ask a couple of them at a safe distance why they’re here.

A business student in his final year says he prefers using physical books for his studies, and now that Waterstones is open, he can actually get them. He waited in line for at least a half-hour. He took public transport to get to the store, the bus, which was “actually a little bit quicker than normal, if anything.”

Another pair of shoppers hungry for the opportunity to buy books in-person again had been waiting in line for 45 minutes. One of them was working in a library before lockdown, but it’s shut down now. The other shopper just finished her second year of college, and was supposed to be taking a trip to Germany this summer. Instead, she’s looking for books to occupy her time.

(Victoria Craig)

James Daunt is the managing director of Waterstones and the CEO of the U.S. bookshop chain Barnes & Noble.

Craig spoke with Daunt, and he explained what measures his companies have put in place to make sure shoppers stay safe as more stores begin to open up. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Daunt: It’s mainly about trying to achieve social distancing. So marking, both outside the shop on the pavement, the two meters, then running one-way systems, as it were, through the shops. We’ve got their hand sanitizers, and we have sneeze guards in place, which separate booksellers at the cashier desks from customers. And we’re asking customers who browse and pick up books that they then decide not to buy to put them down on trolleys, so that we can then take those and put them in the back for 72 hours to “self-heal.”

Craig: It’s this quarantining books concept that’s actually been discussed a lot here in the U.K. In practice, how do you make sure customers adhere to the policy? And do you worry about not having enough of any one book to keep on the shelves that customers can browse?

Daunt: We don’t have a sort of furious turnover of stock that you get, for example, at supermarkets. So for us, it’s it’s very straightforward. We have the trolleys, the books get put away and then they come back. And the reality is that we’ve got tens of thousands of books in our shops, that losing the relatively small number in that for three days will not make any difference.

Craig: What do you anticipate demand to be like?

Daunt: Well, we know for the shops said we’ve had open. So when we reopened in Amsterdam and in Brussel, and we know what our European colleagues have experienced. And we know what our American colleagues have experienced. And it’s been pretty similar, which is at the start, sales are really quite depressed, and not far off half what they would normally be. And, generally, we’re finding in the United States that were settling at about 20% down, after about two or three weeks.

Craig: In the U.S., Barnes & Noble shifted to YouTube for author events like book signings and readings. Those would normally be done in a store. Obviously, that’s been a huge hit for authors who wanted to promote their new books, but what does it meant for retail stores? Do you think the coronavirus has changed the way shops will operate permanently?

Daunt: For us there have definitely been positive sides to the lockdown. It has certainly forced us to make our online offers better. But, frankly, as shopkeepers, we remain deeply wedded to our physical shops and to the physical experience. So we hope at some point that we will be able to host events again. But I’m sure, when we do so, we will also be streaming them. And we will also be engaged on the social media platforms.

And in the United States, we’ve used the period of closure to, what we call, re-lay our stores — that is, literally, do a massive sort of cleanup and reimagining of what the book shops could be.

Craig: And that was part of your strategy when you took over at Barnes & Noble in the first place, was to kind of rework how stores were laid out. So that’s, I guess, accelerated your plan a bit?

Daunt: It certainly has. And we were going to have to basically take about two years, having a rolling series of store closures whilst we re-lay the shops, move things around and improve them. But, evidently, we’ve been able to accelerate that and just seize the moment of of our closures to get the work done. So there’s a silver lining to our closing.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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