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B.C. stores envision phased retail reawakening

B.C. could follow Saskatchewan’s plan to reopen sector on May 19
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B.C. retailers could see a phased-in return to normal operations if the province follows Saskatchewan’s lead for a thaw in COVID-19 restrictions. Photo by Prostock-Studio/iStock

The Canadian retail sector will see a two-part return to business, with essential retailers getting back to work before their non-essential counterparts, says Retail Council of Canada president Diane Brisebois.

The key question that the sector is trying to answer, she said, is, “How do you try to mitigate and ensure commerce with citizens on a regular basis so you know they’re safe and protected?”

And, said industry watcher Craig Patterson of Retail Insider, that return could be in a few weeks if not a couple of months.

In mid-April, B.C. officials publicly floated the idea of easing restrictions by mid-May.

Saskatchewan on April 23 released its Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan, which aims to loosen by May 4 regulations for medical services and low-risk recreation, then to loosen restrictions on retail services by May 19. Dates for further phases of reopening have not been announced.

Whether B.C. follows a similar pattern remains to be seen.

Brisebois said provincial governments reached out to the council for feedback on how retailers could be managed in an overall return to normal.

Even as restrictions ease, Brisebois said, business operators are going to have change the way they operate. The changes most obvious to consumers will be those they’ve already seen – social distancing and the transparent barriers at checkouts.

Store traffic will have to be monitored and staff would have to be retrained on cleaning procedures.

First, Brisebois said, the curve of COVID-19 infection needs to flatten.

“We need increased testing before we move ahead,” she said.

Then, all sectors need to coordinate how they will return to business. Companies will have to ask, “Is everyone involved?” Brisebois said, citing the Saskatchewan case. “Is the chain of command singing off the same hymn book so citizens are not confused?”

And, she said, bureaucratic interference needs to be kept to a minimum.

Businesses, she said, need co-operation rather than hindrance from government agencies and bylaw services – “They need to reach out; they need to come together.”

In terms of physical operations, retailers need to deal with rules governing apparel fitting rooms, use of payment keypads and procedures for product returns, as well as overarching concerns about employees, taxes and rent.

“The greatest challenge for them is to ensure that their employees remain healthy and protected,” Brisebois said.

Patterson said May could be too late for businesses that were already struggling as they came out of 2019.

“We did see a decrease in retail sales,” he said. “We saw a decrease in foot traffic in malls.”

What COVID-19 may have done to the retail sector, Patterson said, is move more people to online shopping. The period may have been long enough to entrench e-commerce habits in some consumers, he explained.