Coronavirus: Big sales expected when clothes stores reopen next month

By Simon Read
Business reporter

Shopper looks through sale rackImage source, Getty Images

Clothes shops are ramping up plans to reopen with potentially big discounts.

In England, some non-essential retailers will be able to begin reopening next month.

One of the UK's biggest fashion retailers, Marks and Spencer, said: "We are working towards reopening more space from June."

But analyst Richard Lim of Retail Economics said stores "will have to discount heavily" to sell excess stock that may now be out of season.

"Many clothing retailers have been sitting there with stores full of stock which they haven't be able to shift," he said.

"One of the most pressing issues for retailers is working capital and there is a huge overhang of inventory at fashion stores."

Huge drops in sales

Fashion retailers have been badly hit by the coronavirus crisis. Even those with robust online offerings have reported huge drops in sales.

Next, for instance, saw online sales decline by 32% in the three months to the end of April. Like others, it is keen to re-open stores, as soon as it is deemed safe to do so.

Next said: "We have plans in place for the re-purposing of our stores ready to reopen in a socially-distanced world."

Its measures include installing screens at tills, placing sanitisation stations in stores and managing the number of customers that are allowed to enter its shops.

M&S has kept its food stores open during the crisis, including almost 300 shops that sell fashion as well, although these areas have been blocked off.

Image source, Getty Images

But it says they're ready to be reopened as soon as the government gives it the green light.

"Our 290 stores that sell both clothing and food are led by a single manager - so it means they already have a brilliant working knowledge of the necessary hygiene measures, how to manage social distancing and the flow of our customers in and out of their store," M&S said.

Non-essential retailers

Last week the government said its strategy was to "open non-essential retail when and where it is safe to do so", and subject to those retailers being able to follow new guidelines.

It said the intention was for this to happen in phases from 1 June, although it added that it would issue further guidance on which businesses will be allowed to open and when.

That guidance can't come soon enough, according to Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

"Retailers desperately need clarity in the rules regarding when and how they can open - details that are still lacking," she said.

She warned that safety must be the primary concern in the decisions, rather than size or type of shop.

Creating a safe shopping environment

The retail experience is going to be turned on its head when clothes stores reopen," predicted Mr Lim from Retail Economics.

"Retailers are having to reinterpret government guidelines and have to invest heavily to make sure they can create a safe environment."

He said consumers will remain incredibly anxious and cautious about returning to fashion retailers.

Changing rooms are expected to remain closed while customers will be encouraged to avoid touching merchandise.

"Staff will potentially have to walk around spraying shelves," Mr Lim said.

There are likely to be one-way systems through stores with clear floor markings and signage, while customer entry will be limited and consumers will be encouraged to shop alone.

Next said it will "prioritise the opening of our larger out-of-town stores first".

Their bigger size makes them easier to adapt and they have large car parks and outside spaces to manage queues, it said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There have been long queues at B&Q, which has already opened stores

"Retailers have started to plan how they can open stores and follow safety guidelines, with some hinting at sales when they do open their doors, such as Next," said Dan Plant, savings expert at Hotukdeals.

"Other popular stores, like Primark, lack online sales space, so we'd expect to see plenty of fashion offers when retailers reopen."

But while fashion stores may reopen with deep discounts to clear old stock, most online retailers have already been offering sales to encourage shoppers.

M&S, for instance, launched its "rainbow sale" on Friday with up to 50% off and 10% of takings going to NHS charities.

Boohoo, Fat Face, French Connection, Gap, JD Sports , Next, Superdry and Topshop have offered similar 50%-off deals.

The likes of Asos, Clarks, Dune, Debenhams, John Lewis, Karen Millen, New Look, Office and Quiz have also been offering cut-price deals.