Italy Shops Reopen on Monday. For Many It’s Already Too Late
Commuters make their way through security checks at Central Station in Milan, Italy. (Photographer: Alberto Bernasconi/Bloomberg)

Italy Shops Reopen on Monday. For Many It’s Already Too Late

(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s shoppers may be digging out their wallets as retail businesses reopen on Monday, but many of the country’s 2.7 million merchants say there’s little to celebrate.

“My creditors will be all over me as soon as I raise my portcullis,” said Giulio Anticoli, referring to the heavy medieval-style grates used to protect some storefronts in Rome. “There’s no money in the till.”

Anticoli, whose family has sold clothing in Rome for over a century, said too much economic damage has already been done by Italy’s coronavirus lockdown. His store on Via Somalia, near the city’s elegant Villa Chigi, will remain closed.

“How could I reopen without any guarantee my debts will be frozen and at least some of my tax payments suspended?,” said the 57-year-old Anticoli, who’s leading a protest by shop owners who say the government has failed to support small businesses.

Amid criticism that promised aid wasn’t reaching small businesses, coalition allies and local politicians pushed Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to speed up the relaxation of a nationwide lockdown running into in its third month.

Regional governors persuaded the premier to move up the opening date for bars, restaurants and hair salons to Monday, rather than the original date of June 1.

Italy Shops Reopen on Monday. For Many It’s Already Too Late

Andrea De Marco is one of the small business owners waiting for help from the state. Despite applying for a loan and redundancy support, “I have got nothing, zero,” he said. He calculates that his shoe store on Via Frattina, one of Rome’s busiest shopping streets, lost 80,000 euros ($86,500) during the lockdown. “I am sure I will never get this money back,” he said.

Still, he’s reopening on Monday. “I am an entrepreneur and I will try to be resilient,” said De Marco, 44. “But let’s be honest, for many people, families, buying new shoes won’t be a priority for awhile.”

Conte over the weekend acknowledged the possible downside of an accelerated easing of the national lockdown from Monday, but pledged to move ahead.

“We’re taking a calculated risk, aware that the contagion curve could rise again,” Conte told reporters Saturday in Rome. “We have to accept it, otherwise we could not restart.” Italy on Sunday reported its lowest number of coronavirus-related deaths since March 9.

An earlier government decision to allow only the construction and manufacturing sectors to restart in early May outraged some retail business owners, who argued an additional two weeks without revenue could push them over the edge.

Italy Shops Reopen on Monday. For Many It’s Already Too Late

They may have a point. One in ten Italian retail businesses -- some 270,000 -- is at risk of failing, according to the Confcommercio business lobby.

The situation is particularly dire in the North, the epicenter of the Italian outbreak. About half of all small businesses in Lombardy, the normally bustling region around Milan, are at risk of collapsing, Confcommercio says.

Retailers in the region will see their full-year sales fall 40% after losing some 8 billion euros ($8.6 billion) in revenue during the lockdown, according to the business lobby’s forecasts. As many as a third of shops in Milan may fail to reopen, Confcommercio said, citing a survey conducted last week.

“Before the virus outbreak, Milan was living in a dream world,” said local entrepreneur Gabriel Meghnagi. “Hotels and restaurants were fully booked, trade was flourishing,” said the 62-year-old, who started out hawking jeans in the 1970s and now manages five clothing stores in Milan and nearby Monza.

Though Meghnagi will reopen his business, he said merchants won’t be able to go on paying the traditional high rents in some of Milan’s more prestigious shopping areas, like the 19th Century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II near the city’s Duomo cathedral.

Three million euros a year for 600 square meters (6,458 square feet) “won’t be acceptable any longer, at least in the short-to-medium term,” Meghnagi said.

Italy Shops Reopen on Monday. For Many It’s Already Too Late

Trade will also be lighter on Milan’s Corso Buenos Aires, usually one of the city’s busiest commercial streets. Moleskine, a Belgian-owned maker of trendy notebooks and agendas, will likely close its shop, following in the wake of Sweden’s H&M, which said April 29 it won’t reopen at the location.

For some retailers the decision to stay closed is more about uncertainties in the post-lockdown era than a lack of cash. David Sermoneta, 57, said he has doubts he can meet the requirements to reopen his boutique in Rome. “It’s not clear how many times I’m supposed to sanitize the clothes I sell,” he said.

But like many store owners, the question that weighs most on Sermoneta is what to expect from customers. “Will anyone be in the mood to browse, try on clothes, chat with a sales person, that’s what clients are looking for when they come here,” he said at his boutique near the Spanish Steps. “Masks, gloves, social distance -- that could all kill the pleasure of buying.”

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