Q: What are your predictions for retail’s winter season? Britons were starting to shop with gusto, according to the British Retail Council, but sales have since fallen as the second wave shut down demand for clothes shops and department stores again. Are we in for a tough Christmas?
A: My crystal ball can hardly cope with this changing Covid world.
In April, we prudently produced plan B, anticipating a second wave, which didn’t appear until the virus went back on the offensive and local shutdowns quickly filled the map. Our lives are now ruled by bubbles, 10pm pub curfews, the “rule of six” and different flavours of lockdown.
It’s like a desperate gambler placing bigger and bigger bets to get their money back. If a circuit breaker fails to break the circuit, Boris Johnson could be the first Prime Minister to cancel Christmas!
In need of some good news, I consulted the ultimate Christmas expert: Santa Claus. He was sadly unable to greet me with his usual “Ho, Ho, Ho!” and instead described the worst Christmas he can remember. “I will miss meeting the children,” he said. “Lots of my usual department stores have closed and those that remain open have axed my grotto to save costs.”
Santa may not be seen in any store near you and must break a few rules to come down your chimney. “I applied to join a universal bubble, but was told I must respect current restrictions, including quarantine, as I cross national borders. My Christmas Eve shift could take two years!” he explained. “Kids from Sydney to Sunderland will be lucky to find anything in their stockings. I’m sorry for the children and my reindeer: four were furloughed and three have been made redundant.”
Sadly, it won’t just be reindeer who are unemployed this winter. With many employees moving from furlough to redundancy, households will watch the cash in what will be a Zoom and digital Christmas. Party games will be played with isolated relatives online and turkey dinners, for no more than six, delivered to our door. Let’s hope it snows to provide some festive spirit.
Families will make sure they can have a happy Christmas so there will be a Christmas rush, but December will mirror the drop in footfall experienced since July.
At Timpson, we expect December high street sales to fall by between 15pc and 20pc compared to last year. Christmas 2020 will accelerate the change in our shopping habits, put more retailers out of business, increase the number of empty shops and batter the balance sheets of retail landlords.
That said, a catastrophic Covid Christmas could be exactly what we need – a trigger to save our town centres.
Nine months of self isolating and social distancing have heightened our basic need for human contact. As I’ve written before, real people don’t thrive in a virtual world, because they need a social life. From early childhood, we benefit from positive attachments with parents, friends, neighbours and other people with common interests. We need cricket clubs and local pubs, football crowds and live concerts, coffee mornings and some banter on a bowling green.
The decline of high street shopping will undermine our local communities. Every town needs a hub, with a comprehensive range of essential services and places to relax and meet friends.
Perhaps Christmas 2020 will finally make local and national Government realise that retailers aren’t going to save the high street. A more considered and holistic approach is needed.
As encouraged by the Government’s High Streets Task Force, every local community needs to reimagine their town centre if they’re to survive and thrive over the next 30 years. Future centres should include a medical facility, social services, entertainment and leisure, shops, coffee bars, culture, the arts and much more housing.
Life is tough right now – and a lockdown Christmas would make things worse. But we must look to the future; by redeveloping our town centres, we can promote well-being and enhance people’s lives.
Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.
Send him a question at [email protected]