How retailers around the world are responding to Coronavirus

Imogen Wethered
by Imogen Wethered

With the UK and much of Europe entering into a second lockdown, we thought it would be worthwhile investigating how different countries around the world are dealing with Covid-19, and how it is impacting retailers.

A brief glimpse at how different countries around the world are responding to Covid-19, and how it is impacting the retail industry.

The UK’s tiered approach has left the retail sector battle weary

In the UK, the economic impact of closing stores has been disastrous. About 363,000 specialist shops will remain shuttered in England from Thursday as the new government restrictions kick in.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC chief executive, said switching to online sales and click-and-collect services would not enable “closed retailers to make up for lost ground. Any extension to the lockdown beyond 3 December would be catastrophic … so we urge the government to commit to allowing them to reopen from this date”.

Overall, the UK closed the majority of its stores from the end of March through to when non-essential stores reopened on 15 June, 2020 – one of the first countries in the world to do so. Wales is part way through a two week firebreak while Scotland has deployed a five tiered system across the country. 

The UK will rely heavily on click and collect services in the weeks ahead, with retailers like Currys PC World offering curbside click and collect and other retailers like Samsung offering virtual appointments in a bid to serve customers throughout the lockdown.

According to a September report by PwC, retail experts predict the retail and hospitality sector will return to growth in 2021 as they recover from a low base in 2020. This is especially true for hard hit regions in the north of England, which have seen targeted lockdown measures.

Sadly, a number of major retailers have already succumbed to economic pressures laid on by Covid-19, including Intu, Britain’s largest shopping centre owner, which recently collapsed into administration.

In a Mckinsey survey of 2000+ UK business leaders, fewer executives than in September say that better economic conditions are on the way, but the balance is still tilted toward a positive outlook, especially where profits and customer demand are concerned.

Surviving and making the most out of lockdown 2.0

Sweden’s lockdown-less retail economy is booming

Sweden has become internationally renowned for its far less stringent restrictions on the general public and on retailers, opting to keep services open throughout Covid-19. Instead, the country has largely relied on voluntary social distancing and working from home guidelines.

The lockdown-free country, which is home to retail giants such as H&M and Ikea, has the largest economy in the Nordic region, and saw sales improve in recent months despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Swedish retail trade increased by 3.5% in June 2020 from a year earlier, following a 14.4% slump in May, according to Trading Economics.

The US has taken a case by case, state by state approach

Over the last few months the US has acted as a firm reminder of what happens when Covid-19 isn’t treated with the severity it deserves by government. To be fair, some states have acted quickly while others have been slow to fathom the seriousness of the disease, resulting in 240,000 deaths and over 1m cases.   

In the USA, stores were initially forced to close, and now most have reopened but are cautious and it’s down to retailers to ensure measures. In many states, people are advised to wear masks and to take certain precautions but nothing is mandatory.

The Netherlands closes bars and restaurants but retail stores remain open

During the first lockdown, stores weren’t forced to shut across most of the country – now the nation has gone into a second lockdown and stores don’t have to shut, arguably because they’re safer due to significantly lower customer dwell times.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said there were signs that closing bars and restaurants was working but that further curbs were needed. The country has also temporarily closed cinemas, theatres, museums and pools.

Italy keeps stores open but with big social distancing requirements

Italy, which was one of the hardest hit countries in the first wave of Covid-19, has taken social distancing requirements very seriously, and so have consumers.

Stores are currently allowed to remain open throughout the country, but many are deploying very strict measures to keep customers and store staff safe.

Germany enforces a 10m per person rule

Germany has gone into a month long lockdown, with pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues closed. However, it is keeping retail shops, schools and workplaces open. 

The lockdown measures require shops that are still trading to have only one customer per 10 sq m of floor space. It’s great that retailers to get to remain open, but also a logistical nightmare.

France goes back into lockdown

Like the UK, France has gone into lockdown again, with all non-essential stores closing up shop.  

New Zealand deployed one of the strictest lockdowns and is reaping the rewards

Before closing its borders and ordering shops to shut back in March, New Zealand’s now newly reelected Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, met with local retail giants, such as The Warehouse Group, to discuss the best course of action, and together agreed that a short, hard lockdown was better than a long, drawn-out battle.  

Several local and national lockdowns later and the island country of 5 million has managed to keep Covid-19 cases remarkably low, with just under 2,000 cases and only 25 deaths. Now, retail stores of all types are still open and many are operating as they were pre-Covid.

China is the master of track and trace

China is known for taking an incredibly strict, borderline Draconian, stance towards Covid-19, but the country, like many other southeast Asian countries, has succeeded in keeping numbers low because of a different approach.

China is able to track and trace cases across the country whenever there is the suggestion of a new cluster of infections, enabling the government to respond quickly and bring local epidemics under control.

This includes a colour-sorted “health code” system that track people’s movements – a clear (green) bill of health and corresponding QR code is required to enter many businesses, ensuring that almost everyone has adopted the measure, making tracing in the instance of an outbreak easier.


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