Adjusting to “the new normal”

As the industry counts down towards retail stores reopening, Retra’s Chief Executive, Howard Saycell, is confident that consumers will continue to spend on household electricals, but he raises a key point: “Once we open, how busy will we be?”

Having been through one of the most challenging years in our nation’s history, it looks like there is finally some “light at the end of the tunnel”. Being classified as non-essential retailers has meant that many electrical retailers have been forced to close their shops for a big part of the last 12 months.

If the current trends continue in terms of the virus, then across the UK we can look forward to reopening soon. It does vary across the different four nations, so you must check the guidance for wherever you operate.

I think that during the whole pandemic, electrical retailers have done an exceptional job. They have supported their local communities, providing essential services to their consumers and managed the whole challenge of keeping everyone safe while doing so.

As we now look to reopen our stores, safety must be paramount. Retail has been acknowledged as one of the safest environments by the ONS and must continue to be so. The fact that the vaccination roll-out is such a success does not mean we are through the crisis just yet. There are fears of a “third wave” and the last thing any of us want is to be forced into another lockdown. So, it is the responsibility of all of us to continue to follow the guidance in order to keep safe.

During this latest lockdown there have also been some changes in our industry. The WEEE directive changed from 1 January and now requires you to take back in store “like for like” products. You need to keep a log of everything you take back and have an administration trail to say how it has been disposed of.

The other big change for us is the new energy labelling regulations that came into force on 1 March. You are required to change all the labels in store and online. Manufacturers have been putting “dual” labels in the box since November last year, but you must change the label on any display products that still have the old ones. If you have a website, then you must change the labels displayed on your site. Your suppliers should be able to give you the images and specifications you will need if they have not already.

The big question is of course – once we open, how busy will we be? It is a difficult one to answer. I suspect that the extension of many of the Government’s support schemes in the budget would indicate that they do not expect consumers to be beating our doors down. I think it will take time for consumers to adjust to “the new normal”. Trust will be a big factor in bringing the consumer back to the high street.

The growth we have seen in online sales will not just suddenly disappear. Changes in shopping habits have been set here and many may never be reversed. Never has it been more important to offer a truly “multichannel” experience to the consumer. Most of you will qualify for a restart grant which will help. You can continue to leave some staff on furlough or bring them back on a flexible basis. Unless you are extremely confident that you will be busy from day one, I would look carefully at your cost/sales ratio and be careful not to expect too much too soon in terms of in store sales.

The upside to all of this is that electrical goods have been very popular during the whole crisis and there is no reason why this will not continue. There has been much said about the additional savings that many households now have. Yes, we will once again be in competition with the holiday and leisure industries, but I am very confident that we will continue to get a good share of consumer spend.

Just as there will be concerns about going back into shops, the same will apply to pubs, restaurants and planes. I am expecting our industry to remain high on the consumer’s wish list and to continue to offer both a great service and experience.