Life after lockdown: The return of the mobility retailers
After months of lockdown, all non-essential retail stores can welcome customers back through their doors from today.
For the majority of retailers, it comes after three months of almost zero trade but the 15th of June will hopefully be remembered as the turning point for the fortunes of dealers in the mobility and access sector.
Ahead of today’s grand reopening, THIIS caught up with mobility leaders from across the country to learn what preparations they have put in place for the momentous day.
Becoming COVID-19 secure
To open, all retailers are required to ensure that they are ‘COVID-19 secure’ before welcoming customers and employees back.
To achieve this secure status, retailers are required to make substantial changes to the way they do business.
Safeguarding the showroom
To help shops make the right adjustments, the government released detailed guidance in May, outlining steps companies can take to minimise the risk of transmission in their stores.
The 33-page guidance essentially maps out a whole new way of retailing, with experienced mobility dealers having to adapt almost every facet of their usual day-to-day operations, from how stores are laid out to how merchandise is handled.
Signage, one-way systems and PPE
Speaking to bosses at Clearwell Mobility, Fortuna Mobility, Ableworld, People First Mobility, as well as Glasgow-based Mobility Solutions, all confirmed that they have or are in the process of introducing new signage in their stores to inform customers of the changes and promote social distancing.
Arguably the most important safety measure for reducing transmission, social distancing is set to play a central role in many mobility retailers reopening plans.
Taking a cue from the supermarket sector, many have introduced limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at one time, as well as introducing one-way systems to direct the flow of shoppers and encourage consumers to keep the recommended two-metre distance.
One company quick to embrace and roll out new measures was South East-based Lifestyle and Mobility, which reopened its locations at the end of May after introducing new signage, Perspex counter screens, PPE and a one-way system.
“As we and the rest of the industry re-open showrooms, there will be a collective holding of breath whilst we wait to see what level of footfall returns” Duncan Gillett
The company is not alone, with others introducing similar policies, including Clearwell Mobility.
“Where practical, we are implementing a one-way customer flow as they have in most supermarkets and we are ready to deploy distance markers and cordons around the till,” explains Clearwell’s MD Duncan.
“We have pull-up banners ready to communicate the steps we are taking to customers of which the most important will be limiting the customers in each showroom at any one time.”
Directing the amount and flow of footfall is also high on Scottish retailer Mobility Solutions’ reopening priorities.
“When we open, we will ensure that our stores adhere to social distancing guidelines,” says Retail Operations Manager Kieron MacFarlane.
“We will operate a number of policies including allowing limited numbers of shoppers in store at any time, offering PPE equipment like gloves and masks to shoppers, and conducting a one-way system with social distancing markers on the shop floor.”
In addition, Kieron confirms the company is installing Perspex screens at till points; a move many in the sector are taking to protect staff.
Naturally, retailers with larger stores will find it easier to have customers socially distance whilst in their stores, points out Fortuna’s Elaine Ferguson.
“We have a large showroom with plenty of space to enable social distancing so we there is no requirement to change our layout,” she states.
The benefit of more floor space is also not lost on Ableworld’s Mike Williams, explaining: “Luckily the vast majority of our stores are large enough to adequately give safe distancing to the number of customers we have at one time, so no-one will be queuing in the rain.”
Getting creative with solutions
For mobility retailers with compact stores often located on high streets, one-way systems and social distancing are likely to prove more of a challenge to introduce, requiring these shops to get creative.
“We have a small store so a one-way system would not be appropriate. Instead, we are looking at other ways to implement social distancing,” explained People First Mobility’s Karen Sheppard.
“We will be limiting the number of shoppers at any one time and using social distancing markers and banners until we are told it is safe to not do so.”
Alongside providing staff with PPE and the use of signage and banners, the coastal retail boss is also looking at changing the company’s opening times, attempting to balance the needs of customers with the needs of the business.
“We have considered opening less hours to allow staff to stay furloughed or opening more hours to give customers more time to choose a time to visit,” she elaborates.
“Appointment-only may have to be introduced for any demonstrations of models in store as having one person sit down and try several scooters will mean each one will have to be wiped down before the next customers can try them.”
A personal socially-distanced touch
For TPG DisableAids, the company has taken the approach of less is more: less product on display in the showroom means more safety for customers and employees alike.
“We have certainly simplified the layout in the store and tried within the Public Health Guidelines to ensure that customers can maintain their social distancing, prevent unnecessary contact and pay safely,” summarises MD Alastair Gibbs.
“This has been achieved with additional signage, as well as removing excess stock and just leaving representative examples on show.”
Additionally, the Herefordshire-retailer is intending to use the sunny weather – hopefully – of the coming months to its advantage.
“In the short term, and during the summer months, we are fortunate enough to have a safe outside space and we envisage utilising that space to provide a ‘White Glove’ service to our visiting customers,” continues Alastair.
“We bring the product out to them for approval before they make their purchase. Almost like a personal shopper service.
“This can extend to customers we visit to a certain extent and those with access to a smartphone or tablet can have the ability to view product via Facetime or Zoom before we visit them, in the same way that we can view their property for feasibility of a stairlift or ramp.”
Embracing new ways of operating
As well as changing physical shopping environments, companies are having to modify how they carry out business operations, from how they deliver products to how they handle returns.
A common measure that the majority of retailers in the sector are embracing is providing customers with the option of contactless payments, with one retailer moving to a contactless-only payment policy.
Notably, as more retailers look to encourage customers to pay using contactless methods, Age UK in early May stressed the important role that tangible notes and coins still play in many elderly people’s lives.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, says: “Many older people are particularly reliant on cash and so ensuring that cash supplies are uninterrupted is particularly important to them as lockdown continues.”
It will be for retailers to decide whether handling cash can still be carried out safely and the impact moving to contactless could have on their customers as society attempts to acclimatise to the new normal.
After months of physical store closures, many in the sector have prompted customers to buy online and it will likely be a practice that retailers will continue to promote in an effort to reduce the risk of exposure to staff and consumers.
“We will continue to encourage customers to go online or make orders by telephone when they can,” explains Mobility Solutions’ Kieron MacFarlane.
“To ensure that this process is as smooth and as easy as possible we have a freephone telephone number, free delivery over £90 and an extended returns period.”
It remains to be seen if the past three months has accelerated the shift from bricks to clicks with customers not au fait with online shopping before lockdown being forced to engage with companies’ websites for essentials such as food.
“None of us can predict the future and mobility retailers need to ensure they have plans in place and a strategy to not just cope but to grow their businesses” Elaine Ferguson
This, coupled with the continued risk of COVID-19 looming in the air, has led some to suggest online may play an even bigger role for retailers post-lockdown.
Discussing the idea, Ableworld’s Mike Williams remains confident that shoppers will not abandon physical stores just yet.
“The trade will change dramatically although customers will still want to see and feel products, not via the internet,” he asserts.
“The internet in this period has gone up dramatically but I believe the last figures were around 24 per cent in the country as a whole, meaning 76 per cent of customers still prefer bricks and mortar.”
Delivering contactless deliveries
Alongside contactless payments, retailers are creating stringent new contactless delivery procedures. For the mobility sector, this poses its own problems as many of the products purchased by customers require a degree of instruction and set up to ensure users safety.
Over the 12 weeks of lockdown, however, many in the sector have already been working and refining their delivery systems.
Clearwell Mobility’s founder Duncan Gillett shares details of his company’s procedures: “We have been doing contactless deliveries for some time now. This follows a strict process with social distancing at its core.
“We advise customers to move out to a different room in the house while we are delivering or installing. The driver uses anti-bacterial sanitiser, gloves and a face mask and then wipes down any surfaces touched.”
Conceding that the “delivery isn’t as reassuring and instructional as usual”, the retail leader maintains that “it is still possible to convey the operational basics of the product from a distance of two metres.”
Another issue facing mobility retailers are handling returned goods, with People First Mobility’s Karen Sheppard raising concerns in early May over how retailers in the sector should determine their returns policy.
“What will be the returns policy on goods? I had a food delivery where the company would not take back a substituted item or a damaged item, saying that they are unable to take any returns or offer any refunds,” she said at the time.
“There are already policies in place for certain hygiene products in our industry but what about other daily living aids? How long does the virus stay on hard surfaces?”
With guidance relating to returned goods being omitted from the government’s first guidance draft, the questions raised by Karen were echoed by retailers across several sectors throughout May.
On the 25th, the government updated its guidance with dedicated advice regarding returned products, stating that “items that have been returned, donated, brought in for repair or extensively handled, in a container or separate room for 72 hours, or cleaning such items with usual cleaning products, before displaying them on the shop floor. Materials used for cleaning can be disposed of normally.”
Preparing with PPE
Personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and customers alike looks set to be an integral element of many retailers reopening measures.
London-based Fortuna Mobility’s approach is to have all staff completing assessments, installation or deliveries wearing full PPE, confirms Mobility Services Manager Elaine Ferguson, whilst other retailers plan to take the role of PPE one step further.
“Our staff will be encouraged to wear PPE at all times,” said Mobility Solutions’ Kieron MacFarlane.
Rather than encouraging all of its employees to wear PPE, Ableworld boss Mike Williams is taking a different approach.
“Depending on staff and customer requirements, PPE will be available without going over the top or frightening our customers, depending on the circumstances,” he comments.
Importantly, for those retailers intending to encourage staff to wear PPE, the government guidance notes that companies “must provide this PPE free of charge to workers who need it.”
The challenges on the horizon
The return of the retail sector heralds a turning point in this pandemic saga and for many retailers that have seen revenues disappear, it will be welcome reprieve; however, the ‘new normal’ is sure to bring about new challenges that retailers will have to overcome.
Perhaps the biggest is convincing customers that have spent months actively avoiding social contact to re-enter shops and it is something that all retailers are aware of.
With no history of lockdown restrictions and easements to suggest how shoppers will respond, it is very much a ‘wait and see’ situation, as Clearwell Mobility’s Duncan Gillett points out.
“As we and the rest of the industry re-open showrooms, there will be a collective holding of breath whilst we wait to see what level of footfall returns,” he said.
For coastal retailer People First Mobility’s boss, she does not envisage shoppers rapidly flocking back out to shops in a hurry.
“We have spent the last few years trying to encourage people to shop local and support local businesses on the high street and now for two months the high streets have been deserted,” MD Karen Sheppard laments.
“It will take a while to build that footfall back up.
“Also, the entertainment and tourist industry will be slow to open. For those mobility dealers in tourist areas such as us, this will have a massive impact.”
This slow return of footfall is a worry Fortuna Mobility’s Elaine Ferguson shares, stressing that the burden is on retailers to calm customers’ concerns.
“I think many customers will be nervous or unable to return to stores so retailers must be prepared to change and find ways to offer their services and products differently,” she says.
“Also, many people will be fearful for a long time and have safety concerns so retailers need to address this head-on and supply a full range of PPE and hygiene products consistently. None of us can predict the future and mobility retailers need to ensure they have plans in place and a strategy to not just cope but to grow their businesses.”
The suggestion is seconded by Mobility Solutions’ Kieron MacFarlane, who also contends that e-commerce will continue to grow as people adjust to life with coronavirus.
“Retailers will have to ensure that they maintain the highest in hygiene and cleanliness standards, on top of being able to provide all of the recommended social distancing practices and procedures, and are able to communicate with their customers in everything that they are doing for peace of mind,” he says.
“Although footfall traffic will still be hugely important for the retail sector, we are likely to move further toward e-commerce as a primary method of shopping, with customers empowered to make their purchases whilst safe at home.”
Interestingly, Duncan Gillet adds that bricks and mortar shops in the sector may see a shift in the demographic of shoppers visiting stores on behalf of end-users as a result of the virus.
“Certainly, a large proportion of the customers will be self-isolating or shielding and it will most likely be relatives or carers that we will see in showrooms,” he posits.
“As the high street starts to emerge from the lockdown, Clearwell must be there for customers but we are not expecting a return to pre-COVID levels of sales for some time to come.”
Exceptional customer service in exceptional circumstances
Perhaps the largest challenge facing the sector is learning how to deliver the high level of customer service that so many mobility retailers pride themselves on.
Unlike other retail sectors, the mobility dealers are required to go beyond simply selling products but also need a significant degree of understanding consumers’ needs, product knowledge and a lot of empathy.
With the stringent new rules that retailers will have to introduce to keep staff and customers safe, however, it begs the question if companies will be able to provide the same levels of customer service that they did pre-pandemic?
Sharing his thoughts, Clearwell Mobility’s Duncan Gillett succinctly describes the customer service challenges facing retailers in the sector.
“I think we can provide a comparable level of service but the human connection at point of sale and delivery may be more challenging,” he notes.
“I am a great believer in the stoicism of the British population and I expect the older generation in particular to approach the situation with determination and recognition of the somewhat surreal situation we find ourselves in.
“I hope this can carry the mood in the showrooms once they re-open but it’s going to be tough to make it a pleasurable shopping experience whilst social distancing is in place.”
For many mobility retailers, the relationships they have with their customers transcends that of the quick ‘buy and bye’ transactions that have become the norm in so many areas of modern retail; instead, mobility retailers often provide shoppers with invaluable social interaction.
“We have regular customers who pop in to have a cup of coffee and a chat,” explains People First Mobility’s Karen Sheppard.
“They will not be able to come and sit in store for now which will be hard as a lot of them are lonely. A few of my regulars have been calling up for a chat and saying that they are self-isolating and are not seeing anyone.”
Concerned that this element of her business is one that she does not wish to lose, Karen stresses that she will find new ways to continue to meet the needs of her customers in a safe way.
“There will be a change in the way we have to approach and act with customers but the standard of service will not be allowed to fall at any time as our customers are counting on us,” she said.
It is a sentiment Fortuna Mobility’s Elaine Ferguson shares, adding: “I think our customer service has remained as high as ever, in that we are always adapting to the needs of our customers to a high standard and this situation is unprecedented but needs effort, empathy and willingness to adapt and go the extra mile.
“My staff are always working this way so it is not so challenging to find ways to meet people’s needs as we always do, although clearly there are extra challenges at the moment.”
Kieron MacFarlane, Retail Operations Manager for Mobility Solutions, emphasises that communication will play a pivotal role as the sector attempts to provide exceptional customer service in exceptional circumstances.
“Communication is key and both our staff and customers will be fully briefed on any changes that we implement and why these changes are made with their safety in mind,” he says.
“We believe we will still be able to offer a friendly, personal experience to all of those who interact with us whether this be in store, by telephone or online, or via home demonstrations as we adapt to this ‘new normal’.”
For Ableworld, the slowdown in footfall and the need to find new ways of working has helped it discover new ways to enhance its customer service, says MD Mike Williams.
“I’d argue the service has got better because of the situation and the reduced customer flow,” he contends.
“We have learnt some lessons where different things customers have really appreciated and those service levels we will keep.”
It is this collective desire and determination to not only meet but exceed customers’ needs that will be pivotal for success as customers and retailers alike adapt to the new normal. Since lockdown was announced, however, the mobility industry has continued to find ways to surmount seemingly insurmountable challenges and, as lockdown end, retailers look set to continue overcoming the challenges in the weeks and months to come.https://thiis.co.uk/life-after-lockdown-the-return-of-the-mobility-retailers/https://i1.wp.com/thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/open-shop-sign-window.jpg?fit=900%2C550&ssl=1https://i1.wp.com/thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/open-shop-sign-window.jpg?resize=150%2C150&ssl=1Coronavirus NewsCOVID-19 Trade NewsIndustry Deep DivesNewsroomRetailer NewsTrade FocusTrade NewsAfter months of lockdown, all non-essential retail stores can welcome customers back through their doors from today. For the majority of retailers, it comes after three months of almost zero trade but the 15th of June will hopefully be remembered as the turning point for the fortunes of dealers in...Calvin BarnettCalvin Barnettcalvin@thiis.co.ukAdministratorTHIIS Magazine