COMMENT: Customers’ Post-COVID Confidence Will Be Key For Economic Recovery

This week, after shops re-opened throughout Clare and Ireland, Gavin has assessed the challenge facing retailers and other businesspeople in a post-COVID environment

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A few weeks ago, after I mentioned in this column that I hate the phrase the ‘new normal’, a friend gave me a piece of advice. “Think of this as the Star Trek era,” he said. “It’s life Gavin, but not as we know it.”

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And as we enter into the new frontier of re-opening the country, I think the realities of what is different now, from that which we knew before, will pose a bigger challenge to many of us than most have liked to admit.

The news this week has been dominated by the government’s decision to speed up the easing of restrictions. It’s given a lease of life to business, and given hope to many, and I won’t look to dampen that spirit. However, I am anxious and initially worried that this may be a step too far, too soon. I’m not alone in that anxiousness. A large minority (in, admittedly, a very unscientific Twitter poll) of Morning Focus listeners have said to us that they are not yet comfortable about re-entering shops. That’s completely understandable, in my view.

I’ve gotten over it, however.  Upon reflection, I am now comfortable going into stores. I’ve seen no issues so far in those that I have gone into. But there are reasons to be apprehensive. For one, most of us still aren’t wearing face coverings. Bafflingly, it’s still only ‘advice’ to do so. But I digress. My apprehension will ease with time, like many I am sure, and I believe we will become more confident while out and about.

However, I feel that there is a bigger challenge for the public, and the business community, to overcome.

Virtually every business will change how it interacts with customers over the coming months. In many cases, the bar, or restaurant, or salon, or shop that we go back into will feel and look different. Those changes are obviously for our own safety – to carry on ‘business as usual’ would be reckless.  But whether it’s table service only in your local, or having to queue outside before entering a shop, or (gasp!) no buffet breakfast in a hotel, we’re going to have to get used to it. And that, I feel, could be difficult.

We want to live a little and enjoy ourselves, but if things aren’t ‘the same,’ will we really embrace the changed reality? Are you going to return to the local if there isn’t the same crowd gathered around a match or a trad session? If we’ve become more used to being at home and fending for ourselves over the past three months, will more of us opt for the cheaper takeout over the night out? And with money perhaps a bigger issue for many going forward, will we be more reluctant to treat ourselves to a new dress, new shirt, or new gadget, especially if it only comes after you’ve queued outside a shop?

There’s a lot of talk about easing social distancing, and implementing measures to make staff and customers safe. Rightly so. That’s designed to keep us safe and also put us at ease. But I sense that the businesses which will fare best in the coming weeks and months are those who will go beyond this, and will look to offer more than just safety.  Shoppers want comfort now, more than ever, but they have always wanted to enjoy themselves.  That’s not going away, even in the face of this challenge.

The truth is, for businesses and their communities, that the way in which the public respond to this ‘new normal’ will be crucial.  If we keep our hands in our pockets, or send more of our money to international, online retailers, then our local shops and our local towns will struggle to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our collective actions will be vital for the future of our local towns.  ‘Shop local’ is more than a trite soundbite.

But at the same time our local shops need to make us want to support them as well, difficult and all as that may be.  Goodwill, local pride and county passions will only go so far.  But if Clare can promote itself as being open for business, in the appropriate fashion, then that’ll be good for both locals and visitors.

In this Star Trek era, shoppers will have to be given the confidence to boldly go forward, so that our communities don’t just live, but also prosper.