Midcounties Co-operative Travel plans to open eight stores to the public from the middle of next month following a locked door trial from June 1.

The retailer, which has 57 Co-operative Travel branches in total, all part of The Midcounties Co-operative, said the eight stores would trial personal protective equipment for staff and new in-store health and safety measures as part of a “phased return” to high-street trading.

There will be two members of staff initially per branch and customer numbers will be limited once stores re-open to the public. The agents are currently working in the group’s virtual call centre and will return to their own branches.

Currently around 25% of shop staff are working in the virtual call centre while around 65% have been furloughed and the rest are working in different divisions within The Midcounties Co-operative.

Rad Sofronijevic, chief operating officer, travel group, said: “Safety is our primary concern for our colleagues; they have to feel comfortable that they can go back into the branch and observe social distancing guidelines before we introduce customers.

“We will have a small, controlled number of branches and see how it works. We are working towards the middle of June for when we allow customers to come into shops but it would be on a controlled basis.

“The right thing to do is to trial it and make sure we have the policies in place. The policies and procedures will be supported with training and audits to ensure colleagues have a full understanding of the way they need to work in the new world to protect themselves as well as our customers.”

Shops will have screens at alternate desks, as not all can be used due to social distancing. Different types of screens will be trialled from next week.

Other measures will include making hand sanitiser available, disinfecting surfaces, including material cleaning sprays for chairs, gloves, hand masks, and new signage.

The group has also put a new appointment system in place for next week and hopes to encourage customers to book to see travel agents.

Sofronijevic said: “If customer demand is there we do feel confident that customers will want to come back to our branches. We are going to encourage appointments.

“It’s going to be limited how many customers we can have in branches and some may have to wait outside, which is why we are trialling the appointment system as they would be guaranteed to see someone at a certain time and we can then manage other footfall around that.”

In a recent survey of around 1,000 Co-operative Travel customers, 69% said they would feel comfortable being in a branch face to face when it was safe to do so.

In the same survey, 79% of customers said they would be happy to communicate with agents over the phone, 40% by text,  27.5% by WhatsApp and 13% by video conference calls such as Zoom.

Video appointments are also being considered by the group, said Sofronijevic, who added: “A lot of our clients are silver surfer and empty nester types so the results are interesting to see how they have adapted to digital forms of communication and we are looking at how else to communicate with our customers and members and taking some positives from the last few months.”

New enquiries are already increasing.

She said: “We are definitely hopeful that it will make a difference [opening stores]. It’s one of those things that has to play out. It’s been a very challenging few months but it does feel like we are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Meanwhile, Barrhead Travel president Jacqueline Dobson said: “We are still looking at timelines for the phased reopening of our stores.

“Even though 15th June marks the date when non-essential retailers can return in England, we will only reopen our network when we are 100% confident that we can comply with health and safety measures for both our employees and our customers.

“Given that many of our stores are in Scotland, it complicates our reopening strategy as Scottish non-essential retailers are not expected to open until phase three of the Scottish government’s plan which could be July or later.

“All of our stores are also completely different – whether that be in size, layout or location – so each store will need its own individual risk assessment before we consider reopening it.

“We’re looking at a whole host of questions and options including shift patterns, plexiglass barriers, video appointments and what PPE may be required.

“For now, our team has adapted really well to homeworking so we will continue with this while we work on refining our reopening plans.”

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