(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Anyone who has ever waited at Primark to pay for cheap workout attire or a bargain dress knows just what a challenge it is to keep the snaking line in the right place. With precautions to control the novel coronavirus’s spread, that logistical nightmare will get even worse. Every second cash register will be shut and there’ll be an employee in charge of enforcing the regimented flow of customers — in one way and out another.
Social-distancing rules governing shops are just one of the reasons why any honeymoon for retailers in the first days of reopening may be short lived. Many will soon have to confront hard decisions about whether to shut some stores definitively and how to fend off online competition in a world where people may still be hesitant to go out to shop. Recovery will be a long slog, with more pressure on profits than before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Non-essential stores in England, which were forced to close in March, will be permitted to open from June 15. Early indications are good. Ikea stores on the outskirts of London and in the West Midlands drew huge queues when the purveyor of flat-packed furniture (classified as essential) reopened earlier this week. In the U.S., where some states have moved quickly to reopen for business, signs have been encouraging — at least until the civil unrest that forced some store closures again.
Take TJX Cos., owner of T.J. Maxx, one of the most touchy-feely retail experiences. It might seem that treasure hunting for a designer gem would be less appealing during a pandemic. But in late May the company said that overall, sales were above the year-earlier period in the 1,100 stores that had been open for at least a week. Even Macy’s Inc., which got caught in the department-store maelstrom, said sales were moderately higher than anticipated.
It’s a similar picture in Europe. Earlier this week, Primark, owned by Associated British Foods Plc, said that suburban outlets, such as the one in Hilversum in the Netherlands, were comfortably ahead, even though sales in city-center stores in Berlin and Amsterdam were at less than half of what they were a year ago.
There will be pent-up demand when stores open in England, too. During lockdown, online shopping has flourished. Initially, demand was for home furnishings and clothing basics, such as underwear and workout gear. But warm weather, along with a slew of special offers, has encouraged more fashion purchases, such as day dresses, over recent weeks. More markdowns, needed to clear out unsold spring and summer stock, could prompt people to splurge when they can get back out to shop again.
But a surge at the reopening doesn’t necessarily mean an enduring rebound. The pandemic has had great human and economic costs, with U.K. unemployment expected to spike in the second quarter.
Even if their finances have held up, furloughed workers may be reluctant to spend. People make the most drastic changes to their spending when they lose their job or see their friends and family being laid off. Meanwhile, even though economies are gradually reopening, cancelled weddings, parties and overseas holidays will likely mean a lower level of clothing demand for the remainder of this year.
Those who do feel brave enough to splash out may get frustrated with long waits to get into stores or check out. That could be bad news for discount retailers that rely on a high number of relatively low-value transactions. Primark could be hardest hit by social-distancing measures at its busiest stores, which accounted for 10-20% of its total sales before the pandemic, parent Associated British Foods said.
Store closures during lockdown pushed even more people to shop online, a trend that’s likely to continue. The digital share of non-food sales in the U.K. could increase to 41% over the next 18 months or so, from about 30% at the end of 2019, according to Richard Hyman, the independent retail analyst. Shifting business online comes with additional costs too.
All of these forces will make chains think hard about which stores are worth keeping in their networks. In the U.S., Nordstrom Inc. said it would close 16 of its 116 department stores. Expect similar decisions in Europe, especially if the additional costs associated with equipping stores for social distancing can’t be shared with landlords in the form of lower rents.
But some companies are poised to make the most of the turmoil. While Primark may have to deal with some tricky in-store logistics, it should still emerge a winner, given its focus on value, along with cheap-chic rivals Hennes & Mauritz AB and Inditex SA’s Zara. Perhaps that’s why Primark, which has shunned online commerce, is actually opening new stores — such as in Manchester’s Trafford Centre — rather than closing any. Online retailers such as Germany’s Zalando SE and Britain’s Asos Plc, as well as companies with big digital businesses, such as Next Plc, should also be well placed.
But even for the winners, the next year or so will be testing. The changes roiling the industry in the space of these five months would have taken five years in normal times. That’s a lot for even the most nimble retailers to deal with.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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