Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, will be a happier man now that shopping for clothes, shoes, electronic gadgetry and books began in England on Monday but with stores applying — or attempting to apply — the two-metre social distancing rules of “the new normal” alongside plentiful use of hand sanitiser.
The pent up feeling was evident in the long queues that formed, for example, outside Primark Stores in London, Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool and Nottingham selling fashion at budget prices.
A young woman who emerged from Birmingham’s Primark store clutching three bags spoke for all shoppers: “It’s good to be back — it seems like forever since I’ve been in a clothes shop.”
Visiting Westfield shopping centre in east London on Sunday, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged some people may be nervous about returning to the High Street after so long away but insisted they “should shop and shop with confidence”. And on Monday, many did — though it will be a long time before the retail sector recovers.
Primark, which opened each of its 153 English stores, pledged basket handles would be cleaned after each use and that every second till would be closed to maintain social distancing for customers and employees.
Shoppers were told to use hand sanitiser as they walked into Primark in Oxford Street, and some customers wore gloves as they browsed the rails.
Dispensers were placed at the store’s entrance, where members of staff kept an eye on customers as they entered.
While shoppers generally appeared to be well behaved, there was a tightly-packed crowd outside the Nike Town store on Oxford Street where buyers began lining up at 9am ahead of the 11am opening.
Masks are now mandatory on public transport but not compulsory in shops, although customers queuing for the Apple store on Regent Street in central London were told they must wear face coverings once inside.
Shoppers at Selfridges – a place of pilgrimage for Indians – which reopened its London, Manchester and Birmingham branches, have the chance to try before they buy, but any clothes will then be quarantined, while shoes and accessories will be cleaned with sanitising spray or steamed.
In lockdown, little things can become big things. Greg Dulson, 68, who was shopping for a new watch strap, explained: “The strap on my favourite watch broke and I brought it in to the watchmaker’s the day before lockdown. They said come back tomorrow, but it was closed!”
In Manchester people waited for an hour for some shops with long queues outside TK Maxx and Foot Locker. Lines also formed outside the Sports Direct in Worthing.
The Waterstones plan sees the use of “browsing trollies”, usually placed beside the tills, where customers can set down a book they have leafed through but decided not to buy. Those items will then be stored away for three days “until any threat from coronavirus transmission has been eliminated”, the bookshop chain said.
Some jewellers are introducing ultraviolet boxes that can decontaminate items in minutes.
Zoos, safari parks and drive-in cinemas were also allowed to open from Monday. Queues formed outside London Zoo, which has reported financial struggles during the pandemic and sociable animals apparently missing friendly crowds.
Arcadia, which owns the likes of Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, had initially said it would not take cash payments, but on Monday changed its position to say while it will encourage the use of contactless, it will now accept cash. After all, money is money.