So, it has started. The daily drip-drip of job losses and closures, the result apparently of the evil virus.
Boots are shutting their optician shops; John Lewis is abandoning eight stores including a Birmingham flagship that was opened just recently. That’s just two firms - the list goes on and on, all of their announcements reported breathlessly by the media as being down to the spread of Covid-19.
I want to scream at the TV news bulletins, and those dreary, harbinger of doom notifications from Sky News (please Sky, can you choose something more cheerful). In fact, I am screaming, as my wife will readily testify.
Will people stop getting their eyes tested and buying spectacles because of Corona? Is the pandemic leading to another outbreak, this time of blurred vision? Or is it simply the case that Boots is being hammered by the likes of cut-price operators like Specsavers, and that people are preferring to order their glasses online?
Likewise, will Covid-19 prevent folk from visiting John Lewis? Hang on, aren’t their outlets so big, the aisles so wide, that social distancing is not such a problem for them? Surely, of all the retailers, John Lewis ought to be the most well-placed to cope with what transpires as the new normal.
There hangs a clue. Several John Lewis shops are simply too spacious, paying far too much rent and business rates, and attracting not enough shoppers, as to be viable. I will wager that the list of those marked for closure revealed this week was drawn up long before the words “Wuhan” and “market” had seared themselves on the global consciousness. I bet, too, that there is a longer roll call of and that will be unveiled in due course.
They’re aircraft hangars with no one in them. Or to put it another way, vast spaces with not enough customers handing over their plastic then going to another floor to wait patiently while their box is found and then lugging it to the car in the parking space for which they’ve been charged and had to queue for ages to secure. Rather than go through all that palaver, they can sit in their home or wherever they want, and browse and click away, and the package will come, and if they don’t like it, someone will take it away.
Another indication as to what is really going on: John Lewis says that between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of its sales will be made online this year. Last year, it was 40 per cent.
They can argue that the 2020 increase is down to lockdown and more people acquainting themselves with internet shopping. Hmmm. I’d love to see the chart in head office showing how long before they reckoned on hitting 60 per cent to 70 per cent. If not this year, then next – I would lay a tenner on that being the case.
Covid-19 may have hastened that journey but that is all it has done. It’s not the cause, what’s occurring was inevitable. It’s just happening a bit quicker, that is all.
We’re shifting to online. We like it. And what’s more, the old-fashioned bricks and mortar promoters have not helped themselves by making it too darned unpleasant to reach their shops, by making us not wanting to use our cars and not supplying an adequate alternative public transport system, by not having the stock when we get there, and in some cases, not training their employees properly so you can get more information from the computer than you do in person.
Hospitality is suffering, naturally. But the truth is that pubs were folding well ahead of the virus. And cafes are not reopening. But we’ve got too many coffee shops anyway. And, surprise, surprise, the good ones - the ones with gumption and flair - they’re selling again. The bad ones, the ones with steamed-up windows, fading wall posters, the ones that looked like health hazards even before Patient Zero first showed symptoms, they’re staying shut.
Corona is to blame for some of the litany of woe. Airlines have been hit hard, and with them the aircraft-makers and the whole gamut of enterprises that rely on airports. But there were uncertainties looming larger in their world as well, as the green argument strengthened. The need for airport expansion was being heavily questioned, criticism was being levelled at those taking journeys deemed unnecessary.
We urgently need to put some perspective into what is unfolding. Society was changing, economic activity was shifting. Technology was advancing. None of this has anything to do with Covid-19.
Those with influence and power must recognise that and go with the flow. Keeping open a business that is terminal, maintaining a job that is bound to disappear – these are not long-term solutions. They’re storing up problems for tomorrow.
The outbreak is highlighting cracks that were already in place. Papering over them isn’t going to stop them growing. We need to rebuild. Corona is telling us that.