Retailers vie for ‘essential retail’ status in virus outbreak

Some of Britain’s biggest retailers are mounting frantic lobbying campaigns to keep their shops open as the prospect grows of a full nationwide lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sky News has learnt that Dixons Carphone, Halfords and The Original Factory Shop are among the chains vying to claim “essential retailer” status, even as the government prepares to introduce new restrictions on economic activity.

The efforts of some retailers to keep their stores open come as many, including the department store operator John Lewis and Primark, announce the temporary closure of their outlets across the UK.

Boris Johnson has warned the British public not to ignore social distancing measures whilst enjoying parks and open spaces during the coronavirus epidemic.
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The tussle for privileged status comes ahead of this week’s rent quarter day – one of the biggest financial burdens facing retailers as they digest the impact of losing all of their physical store revenues overnight.

Many chains, including Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group and Kingfisher, are seeking to reduce their rent payments by restructuring agreements or simply refusing to pay.

Chains such as Dixons Carphone have been arguing in correspondence with the government that they provide essential infrastructure services and should be allowed to keep trading alongside the major supermarkets.

The company, which is about to permanently shut 531 standalone Carphone Warehouse shops, runs a virtual telecoms network and offers services including mobile phone and laptop repairs.

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Insiders said that Dixons Carphone had told the government that its technology-focused services mean it should be allowed to remain open during a period of vastly increased home-working.

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Image: Halfords is among chains seeking essential status

In a memo to employees on Monday morning, Alex Baldock, Dixons Carphone’s chief executive said the company wanted to keep its stores open for as long as it could operate them safely, according to a person close to the company.

He also referred to the company’s “essential service” provision, the person added.

Halfords, the car-parts and bicycles retailer, is also pitching to be included in any category of retailers allowed to continue operating their physical store networks.

“Halfords is contracted to provide motoring services to key businesses and support healthcare professionals through the provision of motoring services,” a spokesman said.

“Our colleagues play a fundamental role in keeping both individuals in vital services, and the businesses supporting them, moving.”

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A number of other, less obvious, retailers have also sought to argue their case.

The Original Factory Shop, which sells clothing and household goods, has written to Alok Sharma, the business secretary, to say that it provides “an essential service, both in terms of competition and ease of access, for consumers in many towns where, in recent years, retail choice has been diminishing and where local economies have felt squeezed”.

“Around a third of our current sales are in the fast moving consumer goods sector – including groceries and household cleaning materials – which are essential to the continuance of normal, everyday, life,” Emma Fox, TOFS’ chief executive, told Mr Sharma.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers completely understand the need for government to do whatever is in the public interest and that further restrictions may be required at short notice.

“They will continue to support in every way possible but need clarity in advance over what shops and activities must close in order to best look after the needs of their customers, their employees and their businesses.”

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