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Coronavirus: Battle ahead to restore consumer confidence, says Northern Ireland retail chief


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Retailers will face challenges over social distancing and ensuring public safety when stores reopen

Retailers will face challenges over social distancing and ensuring public safety when stores reopen

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Retailers will face challenges over social distancing and ensuring public safety when stores reopen

Northern Ireland is facing an uphill battle to restore consumer confidence following the crippling coronavirus pandemic, it has been warned.

Retail NI boss Glyn Roberts said the biggest challenges when lockdown restrictions ease involve social distancing, public safety and securing the economic livelihood of the high street, including shops, restaurants, coffee shops and pubs.

Mr Roberts made the comments in the wake of public outcry over an Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to London where social distancing was virtually non-existent.

He believes the government has a significant role to play if normal rules are ever to apply again.

"There's absolutely no doubt that we're going to face a serious drop in consumer confidence when the restrictions are even partially lifted," he said.

"People will be cautious about how they buy and what they buy.

"In many respects, this could be the worst recession or economic crisis since records began - and I hope I'm wrong about that.

"More and more people are buying online and there's an issue around how we reanimate town centres and there's clearly an issue about people needing to feel safe.

"That's why procedures need to be put in place with regard to social distancing.

"We believe we need a specific document from government on how that will apply to retail."

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Glyn Roberts

Glyn Roberts

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Glyn Roberts

Mr Roberts said consumers must feel confident about visiting high streets and town centres.

He added: "We've already seen food retailers and pharmacies put social distancing in place and they've spent a lot of money on perspex glass and really changing the format of their stores and that's expensive. At the end of all of this we've got to have high streets and town centres that consumers feel safe and confident to visit again - and that is a massive challenge.

"We need a clear recovery plan for the Northern Ireland economy."

A Northern Ireland travel agent, however, said that despite air travel safety concerns there was still demand for holidays.

Helen Fielding, who sits on ABTA's Council of Regions for Northern Ireland, said many people who have had trips cancelled this year have already rebooked.

"America is selling very well for early next year because the flights have just been released for around Easter time, and St Patrick's Day, we've had a good uptake on those," she said.

"There's also a good uptake on next year's short Easter breaks.

"People are conscious that the longer this goes on, the demand for next year's holidays is going to be higher. People are getting booked early for next year to get their price locked down because if they leave it demand is going to force prices to go up."

Tuesday's revelation about the crowded Aer Lingus flight to London sparked widespread fury on social media, with many readers expressing concern on the Belfast Telegraph's Facebook page.

It underlines the problems that lie ahead in trying to restore consumer confidence.

Colin Thompson said he would think twice about flying with the carrier.

"I won't fly Aer Lingus again until they make a statement as to why they flouted safety measures and put the lives of their passengers and crew at risk," he added.

Nurse Angela Sayers called for the airline to be fined.

"NHS staff are dying because of working to contain this virus," she said.

"People are burying loved ones. We stay in away from friends and family.

"This needs to be stopped and Aer Lingus fined."

Patrick Carson, meanwhile, said: "What was Aer Lingus thinking of?"

Terry Cowie added: "All the people on that flight should hang their heads in shame. Life comes before work."

Belfast Telegraph