Allowing retailers to open under COVID-19 alert level 2 will help Kiwis shop local, industry says

Empty shopping mall
Retail industry leaders are responding to the new guidelines announced by the Government. Photo credit: Getty.

Six weeks after New Zealand went into pandemic lockdown, the future looks brighter for small business owners following confirmation that retail shops can re-open under COVID-19 alert level 2.

Unprecedented demand, low stock and limited staff have made it a challenging time for small businesses, including retailers, particularly as under alert level 3, stores stayed closed and only contactless sales could go ahead. 

Ahead of Monday's decision on whether the country can move to alert level 2, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has given an insight into what this would look like. People are no longer required to stick to their bubble and can travel domestically when they're not sick, maintaining a 2m distance from strangers or a 1m distance from family and friends. 

For businesses, contactless payment is no longer required, but additional hygiene practices must be adopted, social distancing maintained and high-contact surfaces cleaned regularly.

Reacting to Thursday's confirmation that retailers can open under alert level 2, industry leaders said that it's important to ensure that customers feel safe as "we really need them".

New Zealand Council of Retail Property chair Campbell Barbour, said that as shopping centres had been open for essential services they're already well-placed to manage social distancing. 

One advantage is that customers are on private property and management staff are on-site.

"When we get back to level 2, we expect to be able to offer the public a universal standard of safety [and confidence] across the big shopping centres," Barbour said.

Shopping centres operate multiple activities in one place, such as hospitality, retail, medical facilities, cinemas, supermarkets, gyms, bars and personal grooming. A set of guidelines will be developed - taking what's worked in Australia from an operational perspective and adapted to each business situation.

"Each of those specific industry groups will develop their own policies and procedures to best meet the [requirement] to play it safe," Barbour said.

"As shopping centre operators, we'll have an overarching view and enable and encourage [individual operators] to do the right thing... there's no one size fits all."

He said that making sure customers and communities feel safe and encouraging people to support business owners by shopping local is paramount.

"We want to set the highest standards and lead from the front so there's a consistent standard [and will] work with our retailers to do the same."

Various centres were using measures such as 'fogging' and had ramped up their cleaning regime.

"When people go back to malls and shopping centres, they'll see cleaners on the floor providing that level of cleanliness. Any seating environment that encourages people to breach the 1-2m [distancing] will be looked at carefully and amusements like playgrounds, rides and interactive installations will be reviewed or removed," Barbour said.

Greg Harford, chief executive of Retail NZ, said that as businesses had worked hard to look at how they'll manage social distancing and hygiene, confirmation that shops could open at level 2 is "really good news". 

He said further detail on contact tracing, and to what level, is required.  

"My understanding is that it wouldn't be [necessary] - as long as businesses were maintaining social distancing in-store."

Businesses such as Kmart and The Warehouse would adopt similar practices to supermarkets to manage social distancing.

"You'll see markers on the floor where people need to stand and separation of queues - queues might be bigger but not necessarily longer," Harford said.

Although many people will be eager to set foot back into malls, Harford doesn't expect sales to immediately spring back to pre-COVID levels and is encouraging the Government to look at extending the wage subsidy.

Although he sees a "systemic shift" to online shopping, people sick of waiting for their online order to be packed and delivered will likely appreciate being able to visit their local store under alert level 2.

"Over the last two weeks there's been a massive surge in demand for online but also a backlog from four weeks where businesses haven't been able to trade. I'd expect that to improve over the next couple of weeks," Harford said.

Ardern emphasised that returning to work and getting the economy back up and running under level 2 still meant playing it safe.

"While you can go back, it's still worth the conversation with your boss, whether you have to be there in person," she said.

"Level 2 is our return to a 'safer normal', not a business as usual."  

A decision on whether New Zealand can move to alert level 2 is expected to be announced on Monday.