Comment

Covid-hit retailers have forgotten how to win customers back

Many have abandoned two core principles of good shopkeeping: attractive displays and great service

Q: John, with local lockdowns upon us and potentially even harsher measures to come, what advice do you have for independent high street retailers such as myself?

A: We are riding a roller coaster. The “total” lockdown of March was gradually eased with households being given more freedom, pubs reopening, high streets getting back to business and children returning to school. But before we could attend a football match, the regulations began to return – and they may well be even more stringent by Christmas.

Local lockdowns are spreading across the map like a rash and business anxiety is increasing. At Timpson, in line with other retailers, we have changed our medium-term sales forecast from “downbeat” to “disappointing”. Just when we thought we had stabilised our business, a second wave of uncertainty has given confidence another knock.

When commentators ask me about the Christmas rush, I now respond: “Which one: 2020 or 2021?”, Who knows? A year from now, Father Christmas may still be keeping his distance, the elves wearing masks and his reindeer on furlough.

We could be in it for the long haul.

It’s hardly surprising that many retailers now feel footfall is likely to fall even further and business will never bounce back enough to repay a taxpayer-backed Bounce Back loan. But such despondency will make matters worse.

No one wants to be served by Mr or Mrs Grumpy.

You will gain nothing by constantly turning your troubles over in your mind. Instead, think about things in life that put a grin on your face. Wear a visor instead of a mask and greet every customer with a cheeky smile.

Every retailer appears to be doing a conscientious job in making shopping safe by paying close attention to social distancing. But in doing so, many have abandoned two core principles of good shopkeeping: attractive displays and great service,

Over the past four months, shopping areas have become plastered with so many coronavirus posters that customers must find it difficult to spot what the shops are actually selling.

Precincts are peppered with Covid marshals keeping the numbers down and signs have been stuck on every surface repeating social distancing guidelines. As if that isn’t enough, every shop is also urging customers to follow a one-way system and keep two metres apart.

Some window displays are totally hidden by Covid billboards, and the message is repeated inside: all over the floor, behind the counter, above the till and on colleagues’ badges. I’ve seen messages fill the sneeze screen and one (unbelievably) stuck on the ceiling.

It has become such a habit that I’m willing to bet coronavirus notices will still be on display in 2024. That’s one of the real worries about this pandemic: will some of its inconveniences ever disappear, or are we permanently stuck with Zoom, remote working, queuing two metres apart and the pubs closing at 10pm?

With Covid taking centre stage, some shopkeepers have forgotten the importance of customer service. Instead, they have become crowd controllers and rule enforcers, telling people what to do instead of persuading them to make a purchase.

Busy shops and banks have a permanent queue, while a few opticians and jewellers keep their door firmly shut, only letting in one person at a time. If they really have to keep their customers out in the cold, at least they could offer an umbrella and hot drink to those waiting outside. Random acts of kindness mean a lot.

My advice is to love your customers to bits. Since our shops reopened, the customer count has been considerably down.

But average spend is up, because we value every potential sale and have concentrated on providing a truly personal service. Commentators keep talking about the big shift to online shopping, but lockdown, quarantine, isolation and restrictive bubbles can breed loneliness.

Keep a smile on your face and spare the time to talk. Good conversation will help to win back your customers.

Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.

Send him a question at [email protected]