22 July 2020, 09:54 AM
  • A further knock in consumer confidence could affect “fragile” retail sector
Retail industry voices concerns over face mask rules

As the new rule to wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets across England comes into effect, many are concerned about how this will impact the already fragile retail sector.

The new measure, which will be in place from 24th July, is the result of a report requested by the government’s chief scientific adviser, which suggested that without urgent action, a second wave of COVID-19 this winter could overwhelm the NHS. Under the new rule, shops will have the right to refuse customers entry, and police can issue a £100 fine to those not adhering to the rules.

However, since the announcement was made, various questions have arisen in regards to who should be wearing masks and how the rule will be enforced, as well as how this will impact consumer confidence.

It’s been revealed that supermarkets aren’t covered by the new rule, meaning multiples like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Asda haven’t made wearing masks compulsory for either customers or staff. The rule also doesn’t extend to colleagues in stores, so whilst the government does recommend they wear face masks where possible, it’s not mandatory.

So far, environment secretary George Eustice has told retailers they would have “a role to play in helping ensure there’s compliance”. In contrast, British Retail Consortium‘s chief Helen Dickinson stressed that retailers shouldn’t be the ones to enforce the rules. What’s more, the police federation has warned that they won’t be able to attend to every call about shoppers who refuse to wear face coverings in stores.

Despite the uncertainty and concern, some industry insiders, such as Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, hope the new regulation will help boost consumer confidence and encourage more footfall on the high street. That said, others fear that it will deter shoppers from visiting physical shops by causing more fear around people’s increased risk when shopping.

Retail NI chief Glyn Roberts and Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton spoke out about their concerns should the rule later be implemented in Northern Ireland, stating that the retail sector remains in a “fragile place” despite restrictions being gradually eased. In a joint statement, they reiterated the need to protect the high street and city centres as they attempt to recover by avoiding anything that may discourage shoppers.

“Retail is our biggest employer and a major part of towns and cities across the region,” they said in a joint statement. “It faces a huge number of challenges and we need to address those now so that our sector can continue to significantly contribute to our local economy.”
BRC’s Helen Dickinson said: “Retailers have already spent hundreds of millions installing perspex screens, implementing social distancing measures and providing additional cleaning in stores; we hope this announcement will make shoppers feel even more confident about returning to the high street.”

A recent YouGov survey showed that only 21% of people are currently wearing face masks in public, leaving many hopeful that the new rule will encourage shoppers to change this habit, reminding people that the virus is still very much a threat.

Since retailers reopened, it seems that most shoppers have appreciated the safety and hygiene measures businesses have taken to help them feel safe, from setting up hand sanitiser stations and protective screens, to displaying clear social-distancing signage. So there could also be opportunity in the new rule, allowing people to shop safely as they support retailers that are trying to bounce back after lockdown.

To help people stick within the guidelines, many groups and insiders are encouraging retailers to hand out free masks at the door. Clear signage communicating the new rules could also help customers feel more comfortable – ACS has already created new posters to help retailers do just that – while some companies could get even more creative by offering branded, reusable masks.

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