“COVIDity Activity” in our local shops. by Andy Grinter

On retail parks, high streets & busy market places across our district, large & small establishments are trading with COVID aware practices. That’s not surprising, we’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic which calls for extraordinary measures, most of which by now are well established, if not eagerly anticipated by customers.

The ‘new normal’ has placed a heavier reliance by everyone on digital provision but it can feel like technology has replaced human interactions for the duty of care.

While this suits some customers, for many it seems shop keepers have become more safety officers than retailers. Many businesses are going to extraordinary lengths to maintain customer engagement & conduct business as safely as possible. Often it’s at considerable financial expense but despite that, there will be customers who still seek reassurances about the loss of casual arrangements which were for them, so often a vital feature of previous interactions.

The ongoing challenge facing shop keepers is to bring the best of their old world into this, their new world.

The current provisions might provide satisfactory reassurance for those who are relatively comfortable & even relaxed when out and about. But for others getting to grips with jargon such as virtual, online & contactless & new protocols and having to deal with the additional encumbrance of wearing a face mask, these changes could be overwhelming.

And taking place in otherwise familiar surroundings all this could add up to being an intimidating disincentive to venturing out. Footfall figures for our district’s towns published by HBC however, show an encouraging steady upward return toward pre lock down levels, especially for Knaresborough.

But might the figures have simply been boosted by numbers of visitors still prevailing of the gentle outdoor leisure pursuits which proved so popular during lockdown & is it therefore too soon to assume too much?

So as thoughts turn to making the most of the build up to the festive period, which will sadly be without the Christmas Markets this year, what can retailers do to reassure as many visitors as possible to cross their thresholds & provide meaningful  experiences when they do so?

Maybe we should think in terms of the journeys being made to our doorsteps as starting at the bus stop or train station or car park, giving businesses a chance to manage their visitors’ experience as soon as they touch the ground.

How reassuring it would be to be met by welcoming signage with a friendly tone? Maybe we could do even more before that?

Shop Local Shop Safe signs in use around the Harrogate district

In these circumstances when time in each other’s presence is one of the COVID aware practices, it would be safer if visitors arrived fully-prepared & organised, with a degree of knowing what to expect & whatever reassurances that come with that knowledge.

But for those who have largely stayed at home during the pandemic, venturing forth could still easily be a daunting & bewildering experience, albeit one that the rest of us are beginning to take largely for granted.

That’s why dressing of otherwise black safety bollards with colourful boards which have a welcoming message is so useful as part of a caring town centre management strategy, but are there other things we as businesses can do?

Well here are a few:-

  • QR codes – easily downloadable & can be personalised. Link them to your website or social media to take advantage of a growing digital awareness by customers.
  • Signage – imagine by the time customers arrive at your door, they’ve seen enough public information signage to last them and what they’d probably welcome is something much more personal, memorable & instagrammable.

I chalked up a sign for outside saying ‘Nice 2m You’ which went down well.

How many ingenious but much less high tech solutions to the touch & distancing dilemma are out there?

I might cheekily claim the copyright for a ‘knee bell’ as a hands free solution to a door bell on our gallery doorstep.

And how many ways are there to deliver the card swipe machine to customers?

We’ve seen a ‘swiper’ on a selfie stick; served in a saucer & delivered on a tray all of which ‘break the ice’ and bring a smile to faces in these most discombobulating of times.

  • For those who need that little bit more separation, how about extending your opening hours to arrange a ‘by appointment’ service. And market stalls could organise a ‘click & collect’ service to allow customers to pick up after hours.

And what about customers, what can they do?

If they’ve experienced local shops & businesses they could be of great help, why not ask them to

  • Spread the word with friends, family, neighbours & colleagues that the local shops & businesses have everyone’s best interest at heart.
  • Share memorable shopping experiences they’ve enjoyed across their social media, or with their peer groups, clubs & organisations.
  • Spread reassurances which will help build confidence in those who remain apprehensive.

Above all, let others know that the local shops & businesses are helping to make town centres safe to shop:- for now; for Christmas & continuing well beyond.

Andy Grinter runs Art in the Mill in Castlegate in Knaresborough

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