How the Omicron variant could affect indie retailers

30 November 2021, 10:17 AM
  • The new strain of Covid-19 has the power to reshape the shopping landscape again, but independent fine food retailers can prove their resilience once more
How the Omicron variant could affect indie retailers

Covid-19 restrictions are tightening in Britain following the news that a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, was found in the UK. Wearing masks has become mandatory once again in shops in England after the rules were relaxed over the summer

Although it is not yet clear how dangerous the Omicron variant is – and it could take weeks to really understand its impact on vaccines – there are fears among businesses that this new strain could put a dent in festive sales plans. While scientists collect data on the severity of Omicron, retailers will be bracing themselves for the latest round of uncertainty as they prepare for the festive season, but there is good reason to believe that indie fine food shops can ride out this storm.

Prioritising safety

The new guidance on face coverings aligns with many independent retailers’ decisions earlier this year to continue encouraging customers to wear masks and socially distance. Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli, was one of these retailers. “We feel that mandatory use of face covering in shops should have never been left to the customer to decide,” he told Speciality Food

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the retail trade union Usdaw, agrees. “This flip-flopping on basic and sensible Covid measures and the different rules across the UK create confusion, reduce compliance and can lead to conflict,” he said. Retail trade groups are bracing for the worst over fears that customers will not comply with the new rules. The Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman said shops are “extremely concerned about abuse against their staff from customers who don’t want to wear a face covering in a shop”. The British Retail Consortium’s CEO Helen Dickinson said that while retailers will communicate the new rules, it is up to police to enforce them. “It is vital that we do not place hardworking retail staff in harm’s way,” she said.

Even before the new variant was discovered in southern Africa, more than 40% of Brits believed that a full lockdown would likely be imposed this winter, according to research by Mintel. However, an even greater proportion (69%) said they think people will be less compliant with the rules of a new lockdown.

Independent fine food shops generally reported fewer issues than other supermarkets and retailers when the original face covering requirements were in place, and they expect the same this time around. Mark anticipates no real impact on in-store sales – if anything, he said, the shop’s e-commerce site could benefit, “which makes me hope we have ordered enough packaging,” he said.

Over the past 18 months, indies have learned how to prioritise safety while offering an excellent service to customers, both online and off. Tom Newey, CEO of Cobbs Farm Shop, says these high standards will be in place as usual, with the added requirement for customers to wear masks. “We’ve all had to adapt and put new operating procedures in place to help minimise the risk of infection through staff and customers. There is understandably concern about the new Omicron variant, but those same measures that helped prevent infection before remain relevant,” he told Speciality Food.

What’s next?

With mask rules back in effect, what can retailers expect to happen next? Retail establishments with on-site cafés will be aware that face coverings are not required in hospitality venues in England, but the union Unite is hoping that will change. “We must ask why hospitality is the only area in the public arena where face masks are not compulsory. Does the Government consider the health and safety of hospitality workers less of a priority than that of workers in other sectors?” said Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “It is outrageous that hospitality workers are being left to police the wearing of face masks due to the lack of proper mandatory rules or effective legislation.”

Whether Covid-19 restrictions will go even further, requiring a full lockdown, remains to be seen. But thanks to their agility and their status as ‘essential retailers’, many fine food shops can be quick to react, ramping up online shopping options and offering a safe and pleasant shopping experience for locals. “Having already had one Christmas where we brought in measures to minimise pinch points for customers during the peak trading period, we feel well prepared to again provide an enjoyable and safe experience for them this year,” said Cobbs Farm Shop’s Tom.

With some industries in Scotland and Northern Ireland restricting customers with Covid passports, there is also uncertainty over whether this will be expanded in the coming months. A poll by the FSB Northern Ireland found that 85% of respondents believe the policy for mandatory Covid Status Certification checks should not proceed at all or should be applied to both the public and private sectors. The concerns from the group’s small business members ranged from concern around the lack of clarity of the purpose of the checks to the “massive” additional burden the checks could impose on businesses.

In the weeks ahead, safety will become the biggest priority for indie retailers. But with consumers facing another bout of uncertainty and fear, providing a place where communities can come together to feel welcome and share their excitement for the holiday season – whatever form it might take this year – is just as important.

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