LONDON — As the British government braces for a full-scale coronavirus epidemic with up to 20 percent of the workforce potentially ill or under quarantine, retailers here are pondering a post-virus world — and how to make up for lost business.
On Thursday, the newly formed Association of International Retail plans to present an action plan to the British government aimed at helping the sector recover economically once COVID-19 has been contained.
The group, which counts Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis and Global Blue, industry organizations Walpole and New West End Company, property owners Cadogan and Shaftesbury, and the tourism body UKInbound, among its supporters, is focusing on luring back Chinese tourists in particular.
The association is led by Jace Tyrrell, whose title is chair, and by Paul Barnes, chief executive officer.
“Retailers across the U.K. are suffering from a drop in Chinese visitors, who are the biggest spenders and usually account for over 25 percent of all tax-free sales,” AIR said in a statement that will be released on Thursday.
The organization plans to ask the British government to make further enhancements to the visa application system, making it easier for nationalities such as the Chinese to travel to the U.K.; to create a more coordinated and targeted marketing approach to tourists, and to digitalize the tax-free shopping system to bring the U.K. in line with the rest of the world.
AIR said it was working to ensure the 6 billion-pound sector maximizes its “huge potential for growth” as Britain leaves the European Union. It pointed out that at least 57 percent of visits to the U.K. involve shopping, according to Visit Britain.
“Post-Brexit, a thriving retail sector is central to the success of the economy, and the association has projected that the sector could reach 7.5 billion pounds in the next five years,” AIR said in a statement.
In the longer term, the group plans to campaign for extending exemptions to Sunday trading laws and to make the case to government that the U.K.’s new post-Brexit immigration policy “must help retailers get the staff they need from around the world.”
Tyrrell said “the opportunity is great to grow our contribution to the economy further, and so is our responsibility, as we work to ensure retailers recover economically from a slow start to 2020.”
Some 85 cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed in the U.K., most of them in England. In a worst-case scenario, up to 80 percent of the U.K. population could be infected with coronavirus, the government’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told the BBC.
Separately, another industry organization, U.K. Fashion & Textile Association, is also looking at post-virus plans and on Thursday will announce two projects to help support future talent across the entire U.K. supply chain.
The first project, called Made It, is a campaign to promote a better understanding of sourcing, production and the benefits of U.K. manufacturing to the next generation of buyers, designers and entrepreneurs. The UKFT will work with five universities a year for the next three years to ensure that students get a better understanding of the manufacturing environment and how they can help the sector thrive.
The second is an initiative to address one of the major barriers to growth faced by U.K. manufacturers — attracting new talent.
“There are currently thousands of job vacancies in the U.K. fashion and textile manufacturing sector,” said UKFT chief executive officer Adam Mansell.
“While there are several reasons for this, the absolute key is that so many people don’t know that there is still a manufacturing industry here in the U.K. with a huge range of fantastic jobs available. Right now around 120,000 people are employed in the U.K. manufacturing industry and collectively they produce more than 9 billion pounds worth of fashion and textiles every year.”
UKFT said it has developed a Pop-up Factory and Careers Showcase that will run at 30 major careers events over the next three years.