Australian retail readies for coronavirus comeback

However, the former CEO of David Jones foreshadowed a protracted “struggle” with landlords once retailers opened their doors, and a changed retail landscape.

“We do want a quick reopening, but we want it to be a safe one. The worst thing we’re looking for is a false start. We’re hoping it may be as quick as next week,” Zahra says, although some retailers like Kathmandu are set to reopen this week.

“What you will find is once we get back to some recovery, then there will be a lot of discussions and negotiations particularly around rent to see what gets paid. The big issue that retailers are dealing with now is actually that constant struggle with landlords.”

Speaking on ABC’s Radio National, Zahra says stores will begin to open with best practice guidelines in place, which include maintaining 1.5m distancing, limiting customer numbers, regular cleaning and the use of hand sanitiser.

However, Zahra admits the guidelines will present challenges to smaller stores, which will struggle to implement social distancing measures.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, so each store has different complexity. In those instances, smaller stores may look at having security guards at the front and letting customers in one step at a time to limit their distancing within the store,” he says.

“It’s better having fewer people shopping than none at all.”

Ultimately, Zahra says COVID-19 will “change retail forever”, as more businesses moved online and the pandemic resulted in a heightened sense of awareness around hygiene.

“It’s fair to say there’s been a massive change from the retail landscape point of view. This COVID-19 situation has expedited disruption and digital transformation for the retail industry, so there will be fewer stores in the future,” he says.

“If you think about the simple thing of walking into a department store and picking up a tester and spraying a fragrance, it’s unlikely – because it’s a high touch item – that it will be available to consumers in the future, because we’re moving a lot more to a contactless shopping situation.”

While some retailers were “on the brink” of administration, Zahra says he hasn’t heard of any companies that are out of business yet as a result of the economic lockdown. He highlights the importance of the wage subsidy program JobKeeper.

Zahra succeeded Russell Zimmerman as chief executive of retail’s peak industry body at the beginning of May.