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Primark-gate, trainers and people-watching: what non-essential shopping tells us about Britain

For three months, our shopping lists were spartan. Loo roll, flour, eggs, another three crates of anti-bac spray. Watering can for the tomato plants, printer ink cartridge. Pack of three gingham masks (expensive, but justified by profits going to charity.) The odd lockdown-lifestyle splurge on a yoga mat or a cocktail shaker. But after three months of pent-up consumerism, the non-essential shops are open again in England. So what do the first few days back on the high street tell us about which non-essentials are, in fact, essential?

Brits love a bargain

Lockdown was supposed to be an opportunity to go cold turkey from our addiction to fast fashion. The idea was we would emerge from quarantine less in thrall to our consumerist urges and instead committed to make do and mend. It was said we would mindfully purchase fewer quality pieces, choosing carefully only what we really loved. However, observers at the two Westfield shopping centres in London reported at the beginning of the week that crowds made a beeline for the low-priced high-street fashion brands while the luxury boutiques were virtually empty.

Queues outside Primark, Milton Keynes.

Queues outside Primark, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The desire for bargains is an economic issue before it is a cultural one, of course. Queues outside Primark attracted sneers, but reflect the fact that the store does not sell online and that it is significantly cheaper than most of the rest of the high street, particularly for children’s clothes. H&M, popular for inexpensive childrenswear as well as fashion, was also busy this week.

Comfort luxury is a thing, if you can afford it

At the other end of the scale, those with money burning a hole in their pockets were drawn towards longstanding luxury brands whose value and status feels rock solid, rather than to the newest in-vogue label. The household names of Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton reported strong in-store traffic this week, while less-well-known boutiques stood empty. Like investors putting their money into gold bullion in turbulent times, investment shoppers are now less tempted by hot-ticket names than by the “comfort luxury” of time-tested status pieces.

Sportswear is the new youth fashion

Queues outside Nike Town on Oxford Circus, London, as non-essential shops in England open their doors to customers for the first time since lockdown began.

Queues outside Nike Town on Oxford Circus, London. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

If the pandemic had happened in the early 00s, the gaggles of teenagers who made up many of this week’s keen shoppers would have been lined up outside Topshop. Instead they were outside Nike, and trainer specialist stores such as Size. Sportswear – with an aesthetic driven by competitions and celebrity athletes, rather than seasons and designers – has taken the place of traditional fashion for many younger shoppers.

Zara equals zeitgeist

Zara knit top, £15.99.

Zara knit top, £15.99.

The biggest fashion draw for the over-21 shopper this week was Zara. Zara was quick off the mark adapting to the beginning of lockdown, sending samples to models who took publicity photos in their own homes. The resulting images chimed with online shoppers, who liked seeing clothes in contexts that mirrored their own, and made competitor sites – filled with beach-location shoots produced earlier in the year – feel out of touch. A £15.99 cotton knit tank top and a picnic-worthy pair of high-waisted black gingham shorts (£25.99) are flying out now that most physical stores have reopened.

Shopping is for people-watching

Selfridges leaned into their USP as the home of retail-as-theatre.

Selfridges leaned into their USP as the home of retail-as-theatre. Photograph: Matt Writtle

Selfridges can, even under social-distancing rules, still welcome 2,500 shoppers at once, and the queues outside proved that experiential shopping, with curated displays, limited-edition pieces and people-watching, remains a draw. The store leaned into its USP as the home of retail-as-theatre this week, presenting bouquets of flowers in the house colour of yellow to the first shoppers, and entertaining the queue with a jazz band.

Flat shoes, white jeans, cotton shirt: the transitional back-to-work look is classic

Lockdown was an overnight transformation of lifestyle, but coming out of lockdown feels very different. Staggered working days, or rotas split between commuting and home, will be the new normal for many office workers. Sales are strong for daywear that can bridge this new routine. Comfortable, chunky flat sandals that make walking rather than public transport an option are a hit: try the Kin sandal (£119) by Carvela from Kurt Geiger, where all store profits from the first month after opening will be donated to the NHS. White denim (smarter and more summery than blue) and simple cotton shirts are timeless pieces that will – fingers crossed – see you back into precedented times.

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