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Retailers shun reopening Sales amid ‘stampede’ fears

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Business leaders Drapers spoke to this week said they would resist launching Sales in stores on reopening, and some plan to slash prices online instead. 

The UK government announced on 26 May that “non-essential” retail stores in England can reopen from 15 June, as long as they are “Covid secure” under updated guidance. This includes having social-distancing measures in place, and limiting the number of customers in the store at any one time.

Marks & Spencer is preparing to open social-distancing measures in stores

Marks & Spencer is preparing to open with Covid-19 social-distancing measures in stores

High street retailers including PrimarkFrasers GroupNext, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams have since issued detailed reopening plans for their stores in England. 

But fears are mounting that there will be an initial – and unmanageable – influx of customers that would be exacerbated by heavy discounting on the high street. 

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at research consultancy Springboard, warned there could be a “stampede” when non-essential retailers reopen: “We anticipate that once stores open on 15 June – despite the rise in online shopping that has been recorded – the evident pent-up demand to go out among consumers will absolutely translate into footfall.”

Speaking as part of our Drapers Connects series of digital events, Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold said she had spoken to several UK retailers who are debating whether to launch a reopening Sale in stores, because they are worried about too many people turning up.

“I spoke to one large anchor [retailer], which is not going to go into Sale because the last thing retailers will want is to compromise safety, and encourage consumers to bump into each other to get that bargain,” she told Drapers.

She added: “It’s difficult to balance responsibility and what you do with that stock.”

The head of retail at one womenswear multiple said: “The UK market will have to mark down prices when it reopens to clear its stock and to drive sales to help keep cashflow moving.

“We do worry about what will happen if lots of customers flock to the stores when they open, though. We are planning to do a smaller Sale of between 25% or 30% [off] in our stores, and we will offer a bigger discount off current-season stock online to try to combat an influx of customers that we cannot handle.”

Last week, it emerged that luxury department store Harrods plans to open an outlet store at Westfield London in July, to help sell leftover current-season stock. Harrods said the new outlet will ease the new “challenges of hosting the Harrods Sale in store” at its Knightsbridge flagship, which could have attracted higher numbers of customers.

Harrods Outlet allows us to enable better social distancing across a larger footprint, move towards the new season decisively and confidently, and retail in a responsible way,” said managing director Michael Ward. 

However, the founder of one high street multiple said it will avoid discounting altogether: “We don’t plan to discount on reopening. We will of course have a summer Sale, but not until later [when things will have quietened down a bit].”

Indeed, some retailers said they hoped the coronavirus crisis would force a rethink of the UK’s approach to end-of-season Sales.

The owner of one independent retailer in the south-east of England said: “We discounted at the beginning of the lockdown for two weeks. We are not doing any more discounts till the [end-of-summer] Sale time at the end of July.

“We hope Sales can go back to twice a year in January and July, because the Sale calendar needs to change.”

The head of retail agreed: “There is scope for the UK market to take the opportunity to change culture right now, to bring the fashion seasons into line with the meteorological seasons, to buy less, retain full-price integrity and make a significant contribution towards the ecological impact of fashion.

“The government can play a role. However, I think it is up to our brands to seize the opportunity this period is giving us to change.” 

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