Marks & Spencer has reopened its fitting rooms in line with indoor hospitality, but the grey areas in the government guidance are prompting retailers to take a cautious approach.
Marks & Spencer reopened the fitting rooms at all of its 256 UK clothing stores, excluding outlets, in England and Wales on 17 May, to align with indoor hospitality reopening. This follows a successful trial at two M&S stores – Marble Arch and Pantheon at 173 Oxford Street – since 12 April, when “non-essential” retail was given the green light to reopen. The retail stalwart said it had been keeping the reopening under review and listening carefully to customer feedback.
Many clothing retailers decided to reopen their fitting rooms when stores reopened on 12 April, including Harrods, River Island, John Lewis, Gant, Toast, Yours Clothing, Selfridges, AllSaints, JD Sports, Jigsaw, H&M Group, White Stuff and Monsoon Accessorize. However, a handful of big names have yet to do so, including Next, Primark and Beales department store in Poole, Dorset.
Changing rooms have been allowed to reopen since 12 April, where it is safe to do so and if an individual shop can operate them under Covid-secure conditions with allowances for social distancing. This is at the store’s discretion, and shops that do choose to open their fitting rooms may adopt a limited-entry approach, on a "one in, one out" rule, except where customers require specific assistance.
Use may be limited to individual cubicles within fitting room areas and only alternate cubicles may be opened. The government says multi-occupancy fitting rooms should remain closed.
The trading director of one high street clothing multiple said their fitting rooms have been open since 12 April, “as stores need all the fighting chances they can get”: “Ecommerce is still phenomenal and the marketplaces are exploding – fitting rooms are one of the only USPs stores have left. That’s why we’re utilising them.”
In line with government guidelines, strict cleaning measures have been implemented.
For example, Harrods has limited the fitting rooms available, leaves time between each customer for aeration and cleaning, and ensures that all products have a quarantine period of two days after each try-on. Harrods has chosen to do this – stores do not have to quarantine items that have been tried on this time around.
Meanwhile, River Island said there is a team member at the fitting room at all times, so it can control the number of customers in the fitting room. Customers are directed to a cubicle that has not been used for at least a few minutes, cubicles are alternated so a customer does not go into a cubicle which another customer has just vacated. When a customer leaves the fitting room, they will be politely asked to put the items they do not wish to buy on the fitting room rail – staff will not take the items from the customer and will maintain social distancing. Cubicles will be "frequently" cleaned, especially door handles and hooks, while “communal fitting rooms” must remain closed.
“We have opened fitting rooms with strict measures in place,” the managing director of one premium clothing multiple said. “Any products tried on and not purchased are quarantined before going back on sale. We are also trialling w'air – a portable cleaning & sterilising machine, and may roll this out if the trial is successful. We are trialling it in two stores to gauge consumer reaction and staff feedback on it. We like the concept as it sits well with our sustainability goals of reducing water use, reducing pollution via detergents and preserving clothing to last longer.”
WHAT ARE THE FITTING ROOM RULES?
Guidance published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) allows for fitting rooms to be reopened as of 12 April, provided shops introduce measures to minimise transmission of the coronavirus.
Stores are advised to deploy a staff member to control entry to changing areas and allow only one person at a time into a cubicle, with exceptions allowed for those who have disabilities or are shopping with children.
Managers are advised to leave a gap of “several minutes” between customers and cubicles should be cleaned regularly.
The guidance adds that retailers should create “procedures to manage clothes that have been tried on, to minimise contact between customers and staff”.
However, it stops short of advising that items should be quarantined after customers have tried them on, as per government guidelines after the first reopening in 2020.
Retailers say customers are "delighted" that fitting rooms are open.
The director of another premium womenswear multiple said: “Our fitting rooms opened on 12 April and we continue to apply the guideline safety measures. Feedback from customers is that they are delighted to be able to try products on, as it’s more convenient for them [and gives purpose to visiting the stores].”
The CEO of one clothing lifestyle multiple agreed: "We were happy to open our changing rooms as customers asked us to. Not all are using them, but those that do are grateful."
The head of retail at one clothing multiple mirrored this: “We have fully reopened our fitting rooms, however as we have smaller stores, these tend not to be in separate enclosed areas such as you might see in an M&S, for example, but are just by and large on our shop floors.
“We had undertaken some action to use alternate fitting rooms only, since reopening in April to enable some distancing prior to today, with regular cleaning taking place after each customer had finished. We will continue with the cleaning and we will enable our customers to make a choice as to if, and how they would like to use our fitting rooms, but they are all now fully available.”
The CEO of one high street clothing multiple said: “We have had our fitting rooms open since 12 April. The government advice supported it and the scientific advice has been quite clear that transmission is really airborne from those infected, and not via surfaces as was originally thought at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We follow the various rules, and our store teams are quite comfortable with fitting rooms being open and customers really appreciate it. I think there’s an element of companies adhering to certain policies simply to make people 'feel' safe or perhaps respond to union or liability concerns, whereas the science has moved on.”
Meanwhile, Primark is keeping its decision to keep fitting rooms “under review” because of precautions around coronavirus. A spokesman said they will remain closed for the “time being”. Fellow retail giant Next's fitting rooms also remain closed.
The director of one high street retailer, which has not reopened changing rooms, said: “We are not reopening the fitting rooms as the current government requirements would put too much financial strain. Our stores have a number of small fitting rooms, so we’d have to man them all. Even manning half would simply be unaffordable.”
Fitting rooms were allowed to reopen from 12 April, but strict rules on cleaning and social distancing make doing so unviable for some retailers because of staff and safety costs. But with M&S reopening theirs, and an anticipated in-store boost as indoor hospitality reopens today, and customer demand to try before they buy increasing, the remaining few might follow suit.
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