Since returning to level 5 lockdown it has become clear that not everything is the same as it was the first time around. Schools and child-care facilities remain open, elite and professional sports carry on behind closed doors and support bubbles have been established to protect the isolated and vulnerable. But one of the more glaring differences this time has to be the issue of essential items in the retail sector. Since the second lockdown came into effect there has been growing concern amongst retail owners that they are losing out financially in the run-up to Christmas. Forced to close their premises until early December, many will simply go under, never to re-open. More so, businesses such as Tescos, Dunnes Stores and bargain stores have remained open as they are deemed essential, even though many of the purchases made there are not. There are multiple sides to this complicated issue and they are outlined, hopefully to some effect, within this article.
Is it actually Essential?
So one of the main criticisms about the current system is whether or not an item is actually an essential product. Food is obviously vital, as are hygiene products and medical supplies, but to some extent someone’s “need” for an item is highly subjective. Just because I don’t need something, does not imply that another individual is in the same boat, so the process of deciding what is essential is problematic in its own right. Take for instance the situation in a Welsh Tescos, where a woman was told sanitary products were not an essential item. Aside from the fact that access to female sanitary items should be viewed as a basic human right, it beggars belief that anyone would think they were not an immediate necessity. The shop apologised to the women and called on the government for further clarification, but an argument can be made for allowing retailers to sell essential and non-essential items at their discretion. The shop should have employed a little bit of common sense and sold the product then and there, rather than making it an issue for public consumption. Junior Minister Damian English similarly made headlines when he stated childrens clothes are not an essential item. Again, this is highly subjective. If a young child needs socks or underwear or a new jacket in the lead up to winter, it is utter madness that the parent can go into Dunnes and buy food for the week but not pick out a new coat. In that moment, for that family, a child’s jacket is an essential item.
Retailers, whose businesses have been temporarily closed, maintain that allowing larger chains to sell non-essential items is extremely unfair. The rule that bans the selling of non-essentials is an effort to level the playing field, in the hopes that consumers will wait to shop until everywhere re-opens on December 1st. But consider again the previous example of the child who needs a jacket. The parent isn’t going to wait a month to buy their child a jacket just so they can say afterwards that they shopped locally. All that rule does is force people who need essential “non-essentials,” online. They may buy from a local online business or at least an Irish owned company, but more than likely it will be a foreign website that offers a great deal, like amazon. I agree that we need to protect our own economy and that shopping locally is vital if we are to stay afloat financially, but declaring certain items like clothes as non-essential, we are forcing people to shop online. And not always from a local or Irish company.
Retailers are afraid that consumers will shop for Christmas in larger stores that have remained open and that they will lose out on seasonal revenue. This is a legitimate and likely scenario. Already shops are feeling the pinch and most if not all of them will report a financial down-turn at the end of the year. Parents more than likely would shop in larger chains for Christmas to avoid the risk of not having everything they need in time and though this works negatively and unfairly against smaller shops, it presents a separate issue in regard to safety. When businesses dust off the cobwebs and re-open on December 1st, it is probable that there will be some panicking involved. Not being able to access services and products we are normally over-exposed to, can make people feel that everything is finite. This has been seen before during Black Friday events and the St Stevens Day sales. There is the very serious concern that shops will be inundated with customers and essentially it is up to businesses to ensure that they still operate within the safety guidelines.
The selling of alcohol, particularly if it is cheaper than normal, has always come with concerns and warning labels. But there is a certain hypocrisy in allowing the rampant sale of cheap alcohol and banning the purchasing of candles, books or DVD’s. Just because we might say we are addicted to a new box-set doesn’t make it true, unlike in the case of alcohol sometimes and it doesn’t entirely make sense that alcohol is deemed essential enough to avoid the ban. That’s not to say I particularly want alcohol banned, more so, I find it unusual that I can buy a litre or 2 of vodka but if I need a new toaster I have to wait a month or go online. People typically buy alcohol more often than a book or a DVD and a ban on the sale of alcohol would heavily undermine profits, which in reality is the likely reason why you can buy wine but not Last of the Summer Wine.”
All in all, the retail industry has suffered great financial hardship and it is understandable that they would want as close to equal treatment as they could get. However, in more ways than one, banning the selling of non-essentials in larger business’ may not actually help in the end. But I think we are all unified in hoping that it does.