“There can be no new grain without first burning the stubble”: retail after COVID-19

“There can be no new grain without first burning the stubble”: retail after COVID-19

This has taken me a long time to write. Not because it’s particularly long, as you can see, but because I kept waiting for a period of stability in the ongoing health crisis, a time to reflect on what has happened and what might come out of it in the future. The problem, as we’re all learning on the hoof, is that coronavirus waits for no man.

I think we need to bear that in mind just for a moment. A month ago—a month—COVID-19 (as no-one was yet calling it) was a novelty just beginning to blossom into a situation. It was spreading in China: in Shenzen the authorities introduced new legislation to ban the populace from eating dogs, and how we laughed. The vice-president of Iran became infected, and we smiled smugly because the Islamic regime had tried to hide the presence of the virus within its borders. Closer to home, 300 Chevron employees were sent home from Canary Wharf after a colleague was diagnosed with symptoms which suggested infection. But it was still a jape, an adventure, a bit of, dare I say it, light relief.

We can safely say that’s changed. The public health crisis has changed, work has changed, society has changed. What was an inconvenience is now a way of life, and quarantine is no longer a joke or an allegory from pestilences of long-gone centuries. It is our lived experience. There will be a time for analysing what happened and how it came about; but for the moment I want to think a little bit about what comes afterwards.

Like any industry, retail suffers occasional shocks to the system, turning point after which, in retrospect, nothing is ever the same. Television advertising, the development of large shopping malls, the growth of online retail: these are milestones on the road to the future. The public health crisis of 2020 will be another of these. The swift and savage controls on population movement and activity have had a profound effect on in-store footfall; panic-buying, however illogical, has convulsed supply chains and stretched them to breaking point; and both of those factors have thrown an additional burden on on-line retail which has made it unsustainable in the short term.

The public health crisis has changed, work has changed, society has changed.

For commentators and observers like me, it’s been fascinating to watch retail responding. There’s been a strong element of companies watching their competitors, none wanting to go too far or too fast, but everyone desperate not to be left behind. Pub chain JD Wetherspoon, led by the mercurial Tim Martin, was at first bullish about staying open, hoping to eke out some advantage; while clothing giant Next has closed all 700 of its stores to contain the spread of coronavirus. Mike Ashley initially tried to resist paying zero-hours contract workers while they were idle, while Greggs, the bakery chain, pledged to pay its employees for at least eight weeks.

These are in part financial decisions, of course: no business can ignore its bottom line for ever, and altruism has to be balanced against sustainability. The difference between what retailers would like to do and what they can do is sometimes a large one. But it has been particularly interesting to see reputational factors elbow their way to the fore – who has had a ‘good war’? Who has responded deftly and daintily to public pressure? Who has read the mood? These are not passing glints of marketing gold or tin. The crisis is too deep for that. The stakes are now existential: play the game wrong, disgrace yourself in public esteem, and you might never recover.

Ryanair, predictably, are looking like villains. Which? reported that the Irish budget airline was charging passengers as much as £80 extra for rebooked flights as opposed to travel booked freshly on the same services. That starts to look like gouging, and CEO Michael O’Leary doesn’t start with the most spotless track record. Even with the pricing-in of poor reputation, Ryanair looks vulnerable even once normality begins to return.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the cobblers Timpsons have said that while they are being forced to shut their 2,000+ shops nationwide, staff will continue to be employed and paid. This comes from a cunning management and PR team which has already rolled out free dry-cleaning services for the unemployed before interviews, a small gesture but indicative of a big heart (as well as a good brain). James Timpson, the CEO, has navigated his company through these stormy seas with the utmost sensitivity: and there are rewards to be had.

That, I think, is the nub of the issue. Because this epidemiological crisis is unprecedented (or at least unheard of for a century), it will form the landscape of people’s shopping experiences for five, ten, fifteen years. I go back to the Stallworthy couplet with which I began. COVID-19 will be the burning of the stubble, and that will be painful and difficult to endure; but what emerges will be stronger, forged in the strength of adversity. You need a solid balance sheet, a good news story to tell and a spark of imagination which is impossible to define. With these three things, you may smell the burning hay, but you’ll be left healthier for it in the end.

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