Ministers have been warned they have just two weeks to decide whether shops will be able to reopen in December – or risk a Christmas catastrophe for retailers and millions of families.
Retail bosses have told the Government that without a final decision by the middle of November, they will struggle to prepare for the huge spike in demand in December as shoppers rush to buy Christmas presents.
Some insiders told The Mail on Sunday that if stores cannot reopen, their websites could struggle to cope under the surge in orders, and deliveries could be delayed for weeks, potentially leaving families without gifts.
Window of opportunity: Retail bosses have said they could struggle to prepare for the huge spike in demand in December as shoppers rush to buy Christmas presents
John Lewis today issues a plea to Government to provide ‘clarity as soon as possible’ on whether stores will be able to reopen in early December.
Andrew Murphy – group operations director across the £10 billion retail behemoth’s John Lewis and Waitrose chains – said giant stores would need time to ‘swing into gear’ and deal with pent-up demand.
Murphy said he was confident John Lewis would satisfy all of its deliveries and that it was ‘well positioned going into this’.
He revealed he has already deployed thousands of John Lewis staff into Waitrose stores and its online businesses since shops closed last week.
He said John Lewis needs to know whether to line up temporary Christmas staff for its stores, or alternatively whether to channel up to 400,000 product lines into its vast online warehouses and parcels networks if shops remain closed.
Other major high street retailers said they were lobbying Government on the issue, with one stressing that it was crucial that the situation is made clear ‘within the next two weeks’.
One retail chairman last night told The Mail on Sunday that keeping stores closed until after Christmas would have ‘unthinkable’ consequences for both shops and delivery networks, even with click and collect operations still running.
He said with shops largely out of action the unprecedented demand online through December would be ‘near catastrophic’ for Christmas deliveries.
Retailers are already preparing back-up plans to cope with the bottleneck of orders through warehouses and logistics networks. Murphy said he was not pressuring Government to open shops, but said a clear statement over strategy – possibly announced by the middle of this month – would allow chains to prepare for the worst.
John Lewis could make up to 20 per cent of its annual profit in the crucial three weeks to December 24, he revealed. ‘This [second lockdown] has put a boot through four of the seven most profitable weeks of the year,’ Murphy said. ‘That’s everyone, not just John Lewis.
‘Obviously, we would like them to allow us to open shops, but we are aware they can’t prioritise retail over everything else. The NHS needs to be able to cope.
‘The timing of us getting clarity is a very big issue. These are big operations to swing back into gear.’
Murphy also called for a relaxation of Sunday trading laws on the weekend before Christmas. He said a four-hour extension would allow Waitrose to serve about 200,000 more customers.
He urged shoppers to buy early and ‘not play a game of chicken with retailers over price this year’ – waiting for the biggest price cuts – as stores prepare for unprecedented demand through their online warehouses during the Black Friday promotional period this month.
There is nervousness across the high street that a sharp spike in Covid-19 hospitalisations could discourage Prime Minister Boris Johnson from allowing stores to open until the New Year.
Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman told The Mail on Sunday: ‘There is certainly a very strong will in Government to open up and let people do their shopping if they possibly can.
‘The evidence from the first lockdown is that shops are not a major cause of infection.
‘There has been food shopping with half a million employees working in supermarkets throughout this. I would be optimistic there would be a Christmas trading period.’
Murphy said the bulk of spending on Black Friday had yet to begin and savings diverted from abandoned holiday plans and other spending may well be splurged later this month.
He added: ‘My advice is to shop early, shop with retailers that you trust and, candidly, be confident that John Lewis is as well set for this as it is possible to be.’