This how shops – from the big to small independents – are making it safe for us to return


This week our ‘new normality’ finally began to dawn, when thousands of our favourite stores threw open their doors to welcome visitors for the first time in months.

After lockdown was announced on March 23, only shops that sold food and other essential items were allowed to remain open.

But on Monday, non-essential stores both big and small were finally able to unlock their doors in a bid to help restore people’s livelihoods and kickstart the economy. So, from now on, you’ll be able to buy anything you want on the high street again, from clothes, shoes and toys to books, electronics and furniture.

To keep both customers and staff safe, stores have had to follow strict measures put in place by the UK Government to prevent the spread of coronavirus before they can open.

It means that shopping won’t be quite the same as it used to be, but that you can browse and buy with confidence. Here’s how some of our biggest – and smallest – shops have been preparing to reopen.

We’ve done everything by the book

When Andy Rossiter returned to reopen his small chain of three independent book shops that closed in March, he found a time capsule waiting for him.

‘They were filled with titles that were of interest back then,’ he says. ‘So it was really exciting, if strange at first, to restock and reopen.’

During lockdown, many of us realised how important books are to our happiness, with the opening of a new novel one of the few joys afforded to us.

So Andy, whose stores are in southwest England and Wales, found himself continuing to help regular customers hunt down books even when Rossiter Books was closed.

‘We’ve seen a lot of requests via email for copies of Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Dutch author Rutger Bergam,’ he says. ‘I can see why it resonates – its main point is that, fundamentally, human beings are nice. I think it’s really struck a nerve with people.

‘Travel writing and good fiction are also riding high. We had one customer request six travel books to be sent to their relative, to inspire them for future trips. I think escapism is more important than ever.’

To reopen safely, fixtures and till points in the shop have been moved around to make sure people can socially distance, hand sanitiser has been placed at the entrance, and Perspex screens at the tills.

Just two or three of the 13 staff who’ve been furloughed will be brought back initially.

‘We’re limiting our opening days from seven to five days a week, and we will also reduce our opening hours to allow for thorough cleaning at the beginning and end of the day,’ says Andy.

And, no doubt, to stock up on the deluge of new titles, whose release was delayed by coronavirus.

Back to flat-pack heaven

They may be a Swedish store, but no British weekend is complete without a trip to Ikea for meatballs and a browse around its marketplace.

Now hungry customers can get their fix once more, with the popular furniture chain having opened all of its 22 UK outlets earlier this month.

They were able to look to their other branches around the world, where they’d already come out of lockdown, to best see how to keep customers and staff safe.

This includes a ‘one in, one out’ policy at busy times, a one-way system, social distance wardens to ensure social-distancing measures are observed, plenty of hand sanitiser on tap, and frequent deep cleans.

They’ve also installed screens at checkouts, are only accepting cashless payments, either by credit card or contactless debit card, and are only allowing one person or group inside a room set at a time.

‘To help limit browsing, we are encouraging everyone to come to the store prepared for what they want to buy, as well as to bring their own bags,’ says Peter Jelkeby, Ikea’s country retail manager. ‘And we ask those who purely wish to return items not to come to our stores in the first instance. We have a 365-day returns policy and urge customers, where possible, to return items at a later date, when they will find it easier to do so.’

At the height of the crisis, Ikea supported the NHS by allowing the huge car parks of their Wembley and Gateshead stores to be used as drive-through Covid-19 test centres for medical staff.

They also reopened four Swedish Food Markets near large hospitals so that medics and other key workers could get good food.

Just as popular will be their decision to keep open their bistro, not to eat in, but to allow customers to buy those famous meatballs to take home.

Safety? We’ve done it ourselves

For 40 years, All Seasons DIY has been the place to go in Smethwick, in the West Midlands, whether you need a new drill, a hammer or a packet of screws.

So when it closed in March on the same day as the schools shut, the family-run firm was deeply missed. So missed, in fact, that within a week it was open again. ‘It became obvious that people in the local community were relying on us for essentials and other products,’ says Surinder Josan, who runs the store with his wife and mother.

But first they had to make sure their customers – and Surinder’s son and daughter who fit working in the shop around their university studies – were safe.

‘We had to reassess how we both serve and interact with our customers, and we adopted several new measures to comply with social distancing to keep ourselves and our customers safe,’ says Surinder.

‘New measures include two-metre markers outside the entrance, limiting the number of people in store at one time, installing screens at the checkout areas, encouraging contactless payments, lowering the minimum card spend to £1, and offering hand wipes to customers.

‘We have also ensured that my mother has not returned to work, since she is elderly and at greater risk’, Surinder says.

Thanks to the steps they’ve taken within the store, she won’t be the only person they’ve kept safe from the Covid-19 threat.

Doing it for the families

Over the past three months, many children have shot up in size, but most are still having to squeeze into too-tight tops and too-short trousers as the clothes shops were shut.

It’s something that Marks & Spencer has recognised when planning to reopen its stores this month – it’s increased the amount of space dedicated to children’s wear by up to 30 per cent.

It means that if a child needs casual clothes, new pyjamas or bigger pair of shoes, it’s easier to find something that’s just right.

Despite introducing many measures to keep staff and customers safe, including hand sanitiser at the entrance and Perspex screens around the tills, M&S has also rearranged its stores to make it simple to find the things you need.

‘We know that customers will be coming out on a mission, be that something for growing kids, or new summer items for a family barbecue,’ says Alison Grainger, head of clothing and home retail.

‘So we’ll be making it easier for them to find what they need, and we’ll be making sure we have what they need in stock – from bringing in new summer products and increasing our kidswear offers to making sure we’ve got a great range of gifts for Father’s Day.’

While all M&S’s stores and clothing spaces within food shops have reopened this week, some of its services haven’t. Although cafés remain closed, there are now Coffee To Go points in 49 stores. And while bra, suit and children’s shoe fitting services have been suspended, the company has improved its online bra-fitting tool to help women.

‘I’ve never been prouder to be part of the M&S team than over these past few months,’ says retail operations director Andrew Walmsley. ‘While shopping may feel different, there will still be the same great service and expert advice that customers expect.’

The five key rules that mean you can shop safely:
Before shops can open their doors once more they must follow strict UK Government advice to keep both shoppers and staff as safe as possible. To reopen, stores must have:

■ Carried out a Covid-19 risk assessment and shared the results with their staff.

■ Cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in place in line with official UK Government guidance.

■ Taken all reasonable steps to help people work from home.

■ Taken all reasonable steps to maintain a two-metre distance between people in their workplace.

■ Done everything possible to manage the transmission risk of coronavirus if people can’t be kept two metres apart.

This UK Government advice applies to England only.