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Less than a month ago, store managers beset by a fresh round of movement control orders and a surge in Covid-19 cases were still pulling their hair out figuring out how to keep their doors open.

Most had sought to stem their losses by trimming overhead costs. Malls and restaurants, left virtually empty by the first lockdown between March and May, and the conditional movement  control order later in October, no longer had any use for full workforces.

But that business decision may come back to bite them hard. After the government began relaxing the conditional movement control order (CMCO), customers began flocking to malls and restaurants in droves, leaving understaffed retailers scrambling to cope with the sudden rush in foot traffic.

“The amount of people coming in and out of Hamley’s has definitely gone up,” said Nur Farah Ain, 32, an assistant store manager at the toy franchise’s 1 Utama Shopping Mall outlet, in Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya.

“Usually in the morning it’s empty until about 4pm, but nowadays, we have customers coming in at all times of the day,” she added.

For retailers, among the hardest hit by the pandemic, the sight of large crowds provided relief and optimism after months of sluggish sales.

Malls, restaurants, chain stores, and more were forced to shut for months as part of restrictions enforced to contain Covid-19, plunging sales by as much as 30.9 per cent in the April to June 2020 period to post the sector’s worst quarterly performance to date.

But the situation appears to be improving, according to several store managers whom Malay Mail interviewed.

Sales that typically mark the year-end holiday have spurred the mood for spending, and customers are seemingly upbeat even as daily Covid-19 cases surged to record highs, likely encouraged by the government’s decision to relax restrictions.

“Since they’ve opened the malls, people have slowly started coming back and as it’s the end of the year,” said Keith Tan, 35, a store manager at Vans, the giant skateboarding shoe retailer, which has a branch in 1 Utama Shopping Centre.

“People are now spending the money they couldn’t back then. Last week we saw a 70 per cent increase in sales, which is huge for us.”

This buoyant sentiment is reflected in how consumers shop online.

Malaysia was among countries that posted the highest sales growth on “12.12”, according to data from Shopback.com, a regional retail consultancy that tracked traffic during the annual mega sale held on December 12.

ShopBack Malaysia said online orders increased five-fold while traffic rose over six times compared to an average day.

Malaysian Retailer Chain Association president Shirley Tay Sun said the improvements have helped lift the sentiment for the group’s sizable members.

Still, Tay pointed to widespread concern over the staff shortage.

“Yes, many of our members are reporting increased foot traffic after the CMCO was relaxed. For example, more families are now dining out because they can do so as a single unit, which is helping the food outlets and restaurants,” she said.

“But many are also worried that people might get complacent and ignore the standard operating procedures. They’re worried that it could force us to go into another lockdown again,” she added.

Most retail managers Malay Mail spoke to said there were growing signs that people are starting to take social distancing lightly, a problem they said is exacerbated by the lack of manpower to ensure customers follow the standard operating procedures (SOP).

“It’s a little difficult to ensure everyone adheres to the SOPs,” said Nur Farah.

“Since the MCO, we don’t have enough staff and because of that, it’s difficult to make sure everyone sticks to the SOPs,” she added, noting that children were particularly difficult to deal with.

“Our biggest problem is people not wearing their masks, or pulling it down under their chin,”

This predicament affects even the biggest retail chains.

“Weekends are especially crazy, especially last weekend. Our store was at our (maximum) capacity, which is 100, most times during the day,” said Nur Diyana, 27, a store manager for Swedish high street fashion giant, H&M.

“We are struggling a bit with the volume of people. Like I said before this, look at our queue, it’s very long and we are understaffed so it’s a bit hard for us,” she added.

“But things seem to be looking up.”

Retailers were prescribed SOPs that included ensuring customers observe the health protocols set by the Ministry of Health. Store operators can be penalised if customers are found without a face mask or fail to keep a safe distance.

Despite stern action taken against offenders, the National Security Council continues to report high daily cases of MCO-related offences.

Government officials have been optimistic in their forecast, predicting a strong rebound by the second half of next year with growth projected to be between 6.5 and 7.5 per cent on the back of improvement in global growth and international trade.

The economy is expected to contract by 4.5 per cent this year.