the reality of being a shop assistant now

Laveta Brigham

As non-essential retail stores reopened around England, Monday marked the first day back for shop assistants up and down the country. An estimated 1.6million UK shop staff have been furloughed since March, when shops were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic. For most retail staff, Monday’s return to […]

As non-essential retail stores reopened around England, Monday marked the first day back for shop assistants up and down the country. An estimated 1.6million UK shop staff have been furloughed since March, when shops were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For most retail staff, Monday’s return to semi-normality offered some relief – the huge crowds that turned out to shop on the high street could encourage anyone to believe that bricks and mortar retail will bounce back. But for all, the new normal also comes with plenty of changes to get used to. 

From managing how customers touch merchandise, to delivering ‘service with a smize’, here, employees at three of the UK’s most popular retail brands share their shop assistant diaries…

“There’s a lot of smizing going on”

says Rachel Pender, store manager for Pandora’s Fosse Park branch in Leicester 

“I got in at 7:30am to make sure everything was implemented and do final checks before we reopened the store at 9am. A team of us went in last week to sort out the new store layout, and implement social distancing both on the shop floor and out the back. Everything is really different, so we’ve had to familiarise ourselves with where everything is.

The process now is that we have service stations – where once we might have had bracelets on one side of the store, and rings on another, now there are three counters which each have the full selection of stock. It’s designed to help minimise the amount of movement for staff and customers.

Pandora’s new store lay out in Leicester

When someone approached the store, the first thing I did was let them know how it works and welcome them in. We all wear masks and gloves now – usually we’re serving people with a smile, but obviously that bit’s covered now, so the alternative is to smize – it’s smiling, with your eyes! There’s a lot of smizing going on, and we’ve had to think about our body language and using our hands to make people feel welcome. It’s taking some getting used to but we’ve adapted.

We’re reducing the amount of trying on by helping customers to make a selection first and narrowing down how many styles they’d like to try.  Say a customer wants a new bracelet, we’ll estimate what size they would be, and then we can hand it to them to try on and we can observe from a distance. Customers love stacking products like rings and charms together, so for us it is so important that they can still have those styling choices and try things on. Once they have tried something it goes through a sanitisation process.

Items displayed in Pandora have been grouped differently to make it easier for store staff to access them without coming into contact with other people

I served one lady in the morning who had bought four bracelets online while she was in lockdown and now wanted to buy some charms for them. She was so pleased to come back into a store and be able to actually see things. I do think with jewellery it’s really personal, it’s either for yourself or a gift, and there’s nothing quite like being able to look at things in front of you.”

“You could see that shoppers are enjoying their freedom”

says Vanessa Riding, Kurt Geiger’s Covent Garden store manager

“We had a queue first thing in the morning, then a steady trickle of shoppers throughout the day. The customers that queued were really excited to be here and wanted to get hold of products like our rainbow Kensington bag that has sold out online, while the store still had plenty of stock. We also had some NHS workers embracing the fact that we’ve got 50% off for NHS staff at the moment.

The first thing you’ll notice as you come in is the floor markers helping customers to maintain social distancing, and we’ve got a one way system in place. We’ve got a maximum capacity of 17 people at any one time. It was a beautiful day in London, so we had a few browsers too – I think people were keen to see what’s going on and are enjoying being out of the house again. 

Kurt Geiger’s new signage is all rainbow-themed, to complement their top-selling rainbow handbag collection

The seating area is also socially-distanced and customers are more than welcome to try products on. We give people hand sanitizer to use and ask that they wear pop socks if they’re not using their own. Anything that isn’t purchased gets cleaned and put in quarantine for 24 hours before it’s restocked. All the team were provided with masks, and we’ve got gloves to wear which we change for each customer that we’re helping. It takes a while to get used to but it hasn’t hindered us at all.

We had a really good first morning back – you could see that shoppers are enjoying their freedom again. I think online shopping is great, but there’s nothing quite like buying shoes in person and having someone help you find that perfect pair.”  

“We were excited to see our colleagues again”

says Alison Ivery, store manager at Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street

“We didn’t have a queue when we opened at 8am, but Oxford Street was so busy and the store was twice as busy as it has been in the last couple of months.  

There’s a different energy; our team felt really excited because we had colleagues returning to work who we haven’t seen for a couple of months. Our food hall has remained open, so we’ve learned a lot from that and have got floor stickers down the aisles and perspex screens on the tills in all departments. Most customers that came in said they were just excited to see more of our clothing and home ranges again. Summer clothes and gym wear were what most people were buying.

A member of staff cleans the perspex screens around the till at Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street

We want customers to feel confident that we’ve taken safety seriously, so they can enjoy the shopping experience again. We clean down our baskets, trolleys and pin pads after every customer. We haven’t been wearing masks, as a team we stay two metres apart at all times whether we’re talking or filling the shelves. But our sales floor teams wash our hands really regularly, we’re given the time to do that. 

A customer at Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street on Monday 15th June

Changing rooms are staying closed for the moment, but we have currently got an extended refund policy in place for people and when items are returned we will quarantine them. I think what’s great is that our expert denim advisers and bra fit advisers are here to help – that’s the difference between shopping online and in store, you can get that advice in person. 

The momentum built as the day went on – normally Oxford Street is quiet in the morning and builds around lunch time. This was the first day, so we know that some people are still at home watching to see how it goes before they come back. We feel quite busy now, though, it’s really exciting.”

 For more news, analysis and advice from The Telegraph’s fashion desk, click here to sign up to get our weekly newsletter, straight to your inbox every Friday. Follow our Instagram @Telegraphfashion.

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