EU and United Kingdom: COVID-19 and reopening retail stores in the EU - governments issue safety guidance

In brief

With a gradual return to economic activity across the EU, governments are starting to issue guidance on the safe reopening of bricks-and-mortar retail. We identify the key themes and practical measures to consider as retailers prepare to welcome consumers and employees back into stores.

As lockdown measures begin to ease and non-essential stores prepare to reopen, governments across the EU are issuing new guidance to help retailers keep customers and employees safe. As the laws and guidance in each jurisdiction are varied and frequently changing, it is important that retailers are one-step ahead in thinking about the mitigating measures which can be implemented in-store. We have reviewed guidance across a number of European jurisdictions and identified key themes; here are some of the practical measures which retailers should consider adopting.

Social Distancing Measures

Social distancing rules broadly remain in force, and retailers are advised to make every effort to comply. These can be broadly categorised into measures that; (i) reduce social contact in stores and (ii) communicate to customers what processes they need to follow.

  1. Reducing Social Contact

Retailers should limit the number of customers allowed in a store at any one time. Some countries have imposed caps on the number of customers permitted entry, for example in Greece this has been defined by the square metre. Germany has taken a strict approach to compliance and proposed the use of video surveillance and security personnel to ensure that maximum numbers are not exceeded. Using digital counting systems or an app can help to limit and track the number of customers and reduce the need for security guards - although retailers will need to consider any data privacy implications. For larger stores or shopping centres, recommendations include limiting the amount of customer parking to act as a deterrent to excessive numbers of customers. 

In-store, stores need to consider the implementation of distancing measures. For example, clear queue management systems, which encourage customers to queue outside the store before entering the premises, and then introduce a one-way system once inside. Consider installing plexiglas covers at tills, encouraging contactless payments and using separate entrances and exits where possible. French guidance advises opening every second checkout in order to minimise contact between cashiers and we are also seeing customers being encouraged to shop alone (unless specific assistance is required), or otherwise made aware of the need to closely supervise children.

Customers should not remain on the premises for any longer than is required. It may be necessary to close customer restaurants and cafes, block off seating areas or deactivate customer Wi-Fi to limit the time spent in-store. Reducing onsite customer facilities is another option, for example setting limits on the number of people who can access bathrooms at any one time and restricting access to elevators to those who are in need - whilst being aware of accessibility requirements. 

Retailers are encouraged to consider whether it is necessary for customers to enter a store at all. Alternative options such as home delivery or click & collect which limit the time customers spend in store should also be available. Enforcing staggered collection times or setting up return stations where the customers can receive contactless refunds will help to manage the flow of customers.

  1. Communicating Measures to Customers

Retailers should consider how to effectively inform their customers of the measures they should follow. For example:

  • Irish guidance recommends the placement of signs in a visible location to ensure customers are adhering to what is required. Signs at entrances should outline exactly how many people can enter a store, and any measures customers need to follow;
  • adding tape on the floor to define the distance between customers when queuing safely and guide the direction of travel around the shop;
  • appointing one employee as spokesperson to communicate guidelines to customers and respond to queries on social distancing;
  • publication on websites, social media or leaflets so that customers are well-informed of the measures they need to follow. 

Cleaning and Hygiene Measures

Guidance advises retailers to consider what steps they should take to ensure their store is ready to reopen, including undertaking a deep clean, and measures such as ensuring that ventilation systems have not been adjusted down from normal levels as a result of reduced capacity. Retailers may wish to check which party is contractually required to pay for cleaning. 

Once stores have reopened, retailers must take steps to ensure the store is kept clean to reduce the risk of transmission on surfaces. Bear in mind that some jurisdictions prescribe particular cleaning protocols - such as France which has issues specific guidance on cleaning measures.  In general, guidance promotes more frequent cleaning schedules, with a particular focus on surfaces that customers regularly interact with, such as door push plates, pull handles, card readers, escalator handrails, elevator buttons and shopping baskets/trolleys. To promote customer hygiene, disinfection stations and hand sanitisers should also be placed in these locations, and waste should be frequently removed (in particular cleaning waste such as paper towels). 

Fitting rooms present additional challenges and retailers should consider whether they are strictly required - given the difficulty in operating them safely (as outlined in UK guidance). Where considered necessary, retailers should consider whether they need a shop assistant to be present in the fitting room area as this is likely to increase the risk of social contact. Fitting rooms will need to be cleaned between each use, and clothes that have been tried on should not be returned straight to the shop floor. 

Additionally, retailers should consider measures to lower the risk of transmission through customer interaction with stock and merchandise. German guidance proposes that stores provide masks to customers entering a store. Another method is to limit the ability of customers to touch merchandise for example by using signs or displaying the items in a less accessible way. 

Protecting Retail Store Employees

Retailers have particular legal obligations to keep their employees and workplaces safe. Many require risk assessments to be in place considering measures to mitigate risks including requirements to consult with representatives or employees on the same. The legislation and guidance is distinct for each jurisdiction, with some imposing additional obligations on employers in customer-facing sectors, including retailers. For example, some jurisdictions require employers to provide PPE such as face masks and/or gloves to their employees in order to comply with local health and safety laws or COVID-19 regulations. Employers may also need to provide appropriate facilities and products such as for regular hand washing, and as outlined in French guidance, disinfectant and antibacterial gel for employee use. Employers can conduct temperature checks on employees in certain jurisdictions, such as Italy, however retailers should exercise caution, seeking legal advice to comply with data protection law and follow any local guidance such as using contactless thermometers. 

Employers are generally obliged to implement social distancing measures for their employees whilst entering and leaving the workplace, as well as their time spent in store. Measures retailers should consider to reduce contact between store employees include staggering start and finish times, splitting workers into teams with particular shift patterns, floor markings and one way systems, staggering break times and encouraging employees to take breaks outside instead of in small indoor spaces, as detailed in UK guidance. Retailers should also consider the appropriate capacity for employees and customers in store in order to maintain safe social distancing. It is crucial to provide employees with adequate training and communication on the new systems of working; employers should check any legal consultation requirements specific to their relevant jurisdictions. 

For more in-depth information on employer obligations please see our Global Reopening Playbook (Part I here and Part II here). This has a roundup of the latest guidance from across our employment practice to achieve a necessary balance between maintaining a safe workplace and putting people back to work.

How should retailers respond?

Store closures have had a profound economical effect across the EU, with retail sales falling by up to 20% compared to previous years. The projected impact of COVID-19 is likely to total over £3billion, with increased online expenditures failing to offset the decline in bricks-and-mortar sales.  Reopening stores will undoubtedly play a vital role in kick-starting the European economy.

Adapting to this changed landscape is challenging for businesses; there is a delicate balance between the protection of public health and the promotion of sales. However, this socially-distanced environment is part of the foreseeable future. Taking these protective measures seriously will play a pivotal role in rebuilding public confidence that it is safe to shop in- store.

These are uncharted waters, and there is an opportunity for those retailers who respond innovatively to these measures and embrace the 'new normal' to attract customers back into physical stores - providing a safe return to the in-store experience that consumers have been missing.

Further Resources:

Germany: Sample Handbook on Hygiene and Safety Measures using Shopping centres as an example (29 April 2020).

UK: Working safely during COVID-19 in shops and branches: Guidance for employers, employees and the self-employed (11 May 2020)

France: Which measures the employer must take to protect the health of his/her workers against the virus? (3 April 2020)

Ireland: COVID 19 – Advice for Employers and Employees (Undated)

Baker McKenzie Global Reopening Playbook: Guidance for multinational employers - Part 1

Baker McKenzie Global Reopening Playbook: Guidance for multinational employers - Part 2

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