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COVID-19: French Market Insight

At the time of writing, France is sadly in the top 5 most bereaved countries in proportion to its population with around 360 dead per 1 million inhabitants. It takes the 4th place after Belgium, Spain, Italy and stands right in front of the UK. Faced with such an unprecedented situation, the French government implemented strict confinement measures from March 14. At first, the lockdown was planned to take place for 15 days, then was extended by two additional weeks. Eventually, the government set May 11 as the planned date for the end of the confinement, which rounded up to a total of 8 weeks at home, paralysing the French economy. By Benoit Brecq.

As of March 14, all non-essential businesses had been closed. Not only schools and universities, but also cafes and restaurants, including all public establishments had to close their doors. Only the stores with essential products, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, were able to remain open. To stay open the shops had to implement a certain number of barriers and safety measures.

From March 17 strict confinement measures were put in place; travel could be only authorised if one was able to present an according certificate. However France, unlike some of its neighbours, had allowed a 1-hour daily individual sport activity within a radius of 1km around person’s home. As regards to employees, if working from home was impossible and the company was not operating in an essential industry, French employees could benefit from partial unemployment subsidy. It allowed them to work a minimum amount of hours and still receive 84% of their net salary. Notably, a lot of parents have gained from having more time to spend with their children at home and, though the opportunity to be involved in their child’s education was challenging, it was appreciated by the majority.

In terms of economy, measures have been put in place aimed at limiting corporate bankruptcies and possible layoffs. To name a few established aids: a solidarity fund with € 1,500 per month aid for entrepreneurs and self-employed workers, direct tax rebates, flexible payment terms for invoices and tax deadlines and state-guaranteed cash loans up to 25% of the turnover of the previous year.

But what is the situation for French retailers in the face of this epidemic? Let’s first look at the mountain stores. Every year, outdoor and mountain stores, and particularly ski resorts, are extremely dependent on weather and snow conditions. The season in the Alps had been pretty good as Michel Mignot from Killi Sport (Val D’Isère) explains. Unfortunately, on March 14 any activity was completely stopped overnight with the closure of ski-resorts and hence the local shops. “We, therefore, had to adapt and put almost all of our employees on partial unemployment”. Michel estimates a loss of turnover between 35% to 40%. The two-month closure at the end of the winter did away with the time of year usually responsible for clearing the shop floor of product before next season’s arrivals.

In the Pyrenees, the season and snow cover were not as good in the Alps. Laurent Descaves from No Limits store in Cauterets told us, “In general, the Pyrenean range suffered from fairly low snowfall this year, and the premature closure of stations and shops on March 14 did not allow us to take the advantage of the late season. We normally close at the end of April and have paid all of our suppliers by March 15. This month and a half, which generally represents the end of season bonus for us, was simply lost this year due to coronavirus.” In addition, the summer collections were already received and paid for, unfortunately, with no opportunity of actually selling the products. With the cancellation of all summer events, resorts fear the absence of tourists in the mountains this summer.

For the surf shops and coastal stores, the sudden closure on March 14 put a break on the opening of the summer season. Indeed, the seasonal nautical activities generally start in France with the Easter holidays, however, this year due to the lockdown tourism, which usually brings a lot of people to the coast of France, died out. At Natura Surf Shop in Léon, Sébastien Bou was directly affected by this closure. He comments: “this period is very important for us coastal surf shops. The traditional Braderie at the start of the season allows us to boost cash by clearing out last year’s stock and makes room for the new collections. With this sudden closure, we were forced to suspend deliveries of our pre-orders pending reopening and sometimes even cancelled part of them.”

A similar story happens at “Uncle Zaz” in Mimizan, Alban Causse, who tells us: “without being able to open, we had to postpone the receipt of our goods. Although, most of the suppliers played the game and helped to alleviate the pain by offering us new payment terms and return conditions. However, we remain optimistic and aim for a shift in sales with a very good late season in September/October.”

At “The Farm” in Seignosse, Olivier Cuisseau shares his vision: “We tried to take the advantage of the imposed closure period to be more active on social media and we were able to carry out a few orders and sales of technical equipment. We were also able to focus on a big project of ours – the launch of our e-commerce website scheduled for May 1.” Olivier expects that discounting by the major surf apparel brands will push stores to focus even more on technology.

Cyril at Tamarindo in Ile d’Oleron also bets on hardware: “Our strategy has been to not delay the delivery of technical equipment and to keep burning on the embers of the market.” He has also used social media a lot to highlight all his deliveries and to trigger sales: “It is clear that we are far from the usual sales volume, but we have sold surfboards and surf skates. We reached new customers across Europe as our logistics service continued to function well throughout the confinement period.” As at Natura in Léon, Cyril has immediately set up a “drive-by system in front of the store to enable easy pick up of goods ordered by phone or on social networks.”

Stores with a strong presence on the internet did not have a sharp drop in sales at all. On the contrary, online businesses were very busy. At Swell Addiction in Brest, Mathieu tells us: “We had to brutally close our 3 physical stores but have kept our e-commerce team, who continued to function well over the period. The most complicated part was the management of transport times, but generally, customers on lockdown are in less of a rush, which helped to limit frustration with delays.” Mathieu confirms, that hardware such as boards, leashes, pads, covers, sold well. The confinement undoubtedly allowed customers the time to take stock of their inventory and order the necessary items to re-equip.

Similarly in Hawaii Surf in Paris where Ghislain confides to us: “The store had to close like everything else in this emergency, but the e-commerce part was maintained and we really focused on putting our products online. Consumption, in general, was slightly down over the first 2 weeks of confinement but resumed quickly from the beginning of April. The whole skateboarding, rollerblading and surfing part has worked super well because people can practice around their home and keep in touch with their passion.” Finally, Ghislain adds: “With the May 11 announcement stating we could go back to the water, the surfing party began and we are really eager to return to the coast and the water.”

Regarding the end of the lockdown on May 11, the government decided to reopen all businesses, except restaurants and cafes. Retailers now have a clear date and vision to revive their activity. All stores are therefore able to re-open their doors, while still taking the specific safety measures. The industry is confident that customers will come back for equipment as soon as possible in order to practice their favourite sports. At the time of writing, there is no certainty about future terms. One thing is however certain, all gatherings of more than 5000 people are prohibited until September, so most summer events are cancelled. Although we should probably expect slow tourism this summer that will affect the brick and mortar retailers, it is still very important to take care of yourself and your loved ones.

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