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The essential/non-essential retail debate has become farcical

The sale of children’s shoes ‘by appointment’ typifies the perplexing approach to retail

Some might call it magic. Filling your trolley with Easter-themed bunnies, fitted sheets and bottles of wine in a crowded supermarket won’t give you Covid-19. But browsing in a bookshop, picking out a new dining table or armchair, or a dress for work, or a new rain jacket for one of those interminable walks … well, that’s a risk the Government is just unwilling to let you take.

Yes, for 203 or so days over the past year, so-called “non-essential” retail has been closed, meaning people have had to rely on online shopping for clothes or other superfluous goods – or simply wait until such shops open again.

Now there has been a capitulation of sorts: the Government is to broaden the range of essential retail by allowing the sale of children’s shoes “by appointment only”. But even this move is characteristic of its perplexing approach to retail.

The Government says the decision to close a whole swathe of non-essential shops is not necessarily because the shops themselves are hot-beds of infection. Rather, as a spokesman from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment says, “it’s to stop people congregating and browsing in order to limit the spread of the virus”.


However, as crowds increasingly congregate in the bed linen or paint aisles of those “essential” retailers (where it can feel like the last shopping day before Christmas at times) buying everything from mattress protectors to garden loungers, are the restrictions starting to look past their sell-by date?

What’s essential?

It’s not something any of us would have given much thought to prior to March 2020, but all of a sudden our worlds split into two: the shops that were deemed “essential”, such as supermarkets, petrol stations and pet shops; and the other ones, the fun ones, that were classified “non-essential”.

One year on however, we’re still stuck with this arbitrary classification, which seems to be making less and less sense.

Orla Muldoon, a professor of psychology at the University of Limerick, still recalls being "mesmerised" by the fact that off-licences made the grade last year - and still do – while children's shoes were excluded.

Indeed, the inability to get your child fitted for a pair of shoes, surely essential for all those small feet out there, has become a bugbear for many. Such is their might that children’s shoes brought down a government back in 1982, but for this Government, children’s footwear has been deemed very much non-essential for the past 12 months or so.

Now the Government says it will row back on this, by allowing shops to fit and sell children’s shoes by appointment only – pending the publication of “guidance”.

To make this decision, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says he took medical advice from the deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn – just like medical advice was taken on buying paint, getting your suit dry-cleaned or buying a six pack of beer, one wonders?

With medical guidance unlikely to be forthcoming for any other amendments to the regime, until non-essential retail opens up sometime in May or June or whenever, what we’re likely to get is more essential shops selling non-essential items – at the expense, perhaps, of those that aren’t allowed open.

The official view, according to the department is that so-called “mixed retailers”, such as Woodies or Tesco, should separate their stock and “only sell the items in-store that are for essential retail purposes”.

“This is to encourage everyone to stay at home and to ensure fairness to those non-essential retailers who have had to close during this time,” a spokesman says.

The reality however, as anyone who has been to a shop of late will attest, is somewhat different. “The lines between what someone would class as essential and non-essential is very blurred,” says Duncan Graham, managing director of Retail Excellence.

In Eason, for example, you can pick up any number of non-essential items, such as a moneybox to toss your coins into, or party bags for a hen night – even though hen nights are verboten – or a Lego set. You can buy books too. But only certain ones; some books are cordoned off.

And at newsagents such as Tuthills you can buy a range of toys, teddies and board games, even though at Smyths you can’t even do click and collect. Why? Because they’re both also newsagents and therefore deemed “essential”.

At Marks & Spencer, you can buy a mug with your initial on it or rainbow-hued gin glasses for the garden, but if you’re looking for a pair of jeggings or jeans, you’ll be warned to stand back from the restricted area.

How can one of these be deemed more essential than the other?

Dunnes Stores continues to blur the lines. At its Cornelscourt outlet in south Dublin, you can’t buy €100 Paul Costello cashmere jumpers; but you can buy cheaper own-brand ones. You can buy wall art bearing the words “Life is at ease with an ocean breeze”, or even footballs; but sports shops across the country must remain closed.

It is this lack of equality that is starting to grate. “They’re (Government) failing on the fairness dimension,” says Muldoon. “Either everyone opens or no-one does. You can’t have Dunnes Stores having an edge over the small retailers.”

Graham agrees, and is concerned about the fact that mixed retailers are offering non-essential products in their stores, but smaller boutiques and other stores remain closed. “It cannot be right,” he says, “there needs to be a level playing field”.

It’s also unfair for people who rely on shopping in low-cost outlets – perhaps with cash – such as Penneys. A spokeswoman for St Vincent de Paul says that Penneys is typically where it sends people in need of basic household items; now they have to go to more expensive alternatives.

Length of closure

But if the whole essential/non-essential debate is all becoming a bit farcical, it’s perhaps more a factor of the length of the closure of the sector, as opposed to the restrictions themselves. Selecting what should be classified as essential during any lockdown was never going to be an easy task; it’s just that our restrictions have gone on longer than anywhere else.

French sports retailer Decathlon, which has postponed two openings in Ireland this year due to the retail restrictions, says the Irish rules are the most severe of any of the 59 countries it operates in globally.

And while France itself has just announced another lockdown, which means non-essential shops must also close, essential shops include book and record shops, hairdressers, and as it’s coming up to Easter, chocolate shops too.

Here in Ireland however, there have been no such nuances. “The only way around it is for the Government to start easing some of the restrictions, or to have a complete re-think on what they classify as essential/non essential,” says Graham.