As New South Wales-based retailers prepare to open their doors on Monday, some for the first time in months, the industry as a whole is both incredibly excited and equally apprehensive.
“The rules have undergone changes, sometimes on a daily basis, that have caused confusion,” National Retailers Association boss Dominique Lamb told Inside Retail.
“Lockdowns are disastrous for retail during any period, but with the sector about to move into the all-important Christmas season this reopening could not happen soon enough. The economic health of Australia’s largest state has a flow-on effect throughout the rest of the country, so it’s critical that New South Wales begins to reopen.”
However, new and sometimes unclear health directives around who can enter shops, and changes to the way face-to-face service will need to be done, have left retailers keen to get back to business with more hoops to jump through, according to Lamb.
So, what are retailers the most worried about?
According to Lamb, the National Retail Association’s hotline has never experienced call volumes as high as the past week, with the prevailing questions being about how to mandate vaccinations for staff, and how they can refuse entry to customers without a barrage of abuse.
“The industry has significant concerns about customer abuse from unvaccinated customers,” Lamb said.
“We know previously when QR codes and masks have been introduced, levels of abuse and aggression skyrocketed. Our front-line workers are often young people, between the age of 15 and 24, who should not be punished for asking customers to comply with the Public Health Directive.”
ARA boss Paul Zahra also told Inside Retail the association was concerned about elevated levels of customer aggression, but added that he expects such issues to be “the exception, not the rule”.
“People are excited to get back to the shops,” Zahra said.
“The most important thing is that law enforcement agencies have the back of business to ensure a safe and smooth reopening.”
How retailers will be able to check people’s vaccination status on Monday is another question, with Zahra noting that while the State Government is working to sync vaccination certification with people’s Service NSW app, this isn’t likely to be ready in time.
“This means people will have to show their vaccination status in a different way – be it through the digital wallet on your phone, or the certificate itself from Medicare.”
As has been seen several times in the last few months, the logistical strain caused by the shift to online shopping has taken its toll on the delivery space.
Australia Post has had to stop picking up new deliveries to work through a backlog of parcels twice in the last month, and with a common mantra being that ‘everyday is like Christmas’ at the moment, it’s increasingly unclear what kind of strain the real deal will cause.
“The incredible surges in online shopping has retailers concerned about Christmas,” Lamb said.
“Supply chains and strike actions are playing a part in delays, [and] retailers are experiencing difficulty getting stock they have ordered for Christmas.”
Making sure this is the last lockdown
And, as has not been the case for the last 18 months, retailers want to trade with certainty that they won’t be shut down again in the near future.
“Avoiding further lockdowns once vaccination thresholds are met is a top concern,” Lamb said. “The industry needs confidence to reopen and know that it will not be a back and forth process.”
Zahra added that, as they have done throughout the pandemic, retailers will do everything in their power to navigate the new requirements and challenges and make the reopening process as smooth as possible.
Through it all, though, both Zahra and Lamb are optimistic about the holiday season ahead, in New South Wales at least, and are looking forward to seeing a sales spike next week – as has been seen when prior lockdown restrictions were lifted.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand in NSW – people have been subject to stay a home orders for over 100 days and are no doubt looking forward to getting their freedoms back and returning to the shops they love,” Zahra said.
“People in NSW are expected to spend $4.1 billion on Christmas presents this year – and that’s great for businesses that have done it tough these past three months.”
Beyond NSW, however, the holiday season looking forward will depend on how each state manages its business community: and how much delivery pipelines are able to manage the ongoing stress of an increased take-up of online shopping across the country.
“For several years now shoppers have shifted to doing Christmas shopping earlier and landmark events in November such as Black Friday have only accelerated this trend,” Lamb said.
“Therefore, we can expect online shopping to only grow this holiday season – but we will reiterate that online shoppers need to get in as early as possible to avoid disappointment.”