Unlike most retailers, Maxi Zoo remains open for business today - but the Covid-19 crisis has placed an unlikely restriction on its operations.
The one thing that Ireland's biggest pet store chain won't sell right now is pets.
It's an irony on the mind of Noelle Long, Maxi Zoo's national manager for purchasing and marketing.
"The entire business has been turned on its head in regards to what we would normally do. At the moment, everything is focused on how we can continue to work," Long said in a phone interview from her home in Blarney, Co Cork, where she has relocated her office from Maxi Zoo's headquarters in Ballincollig.
Together with country manager Enrico De Luca and chief financial officer Tim Cummins, Long drives business at 20 outlets nationwide, employing 180 staff.
Five of Maxi Zoo's biggest branches - in Clonmel, Midleton, Waterford and Dublin outlets in Finglas and Leopardstown - normally feature sales of live animals, including tropical and salt water fish, rodents, hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits. Finglas and Clonmel showcase reptiles too.
But now the aquariums are roped off from customers, the display pens are bare and terrariums empty, and the staff have banded together to care for unsold animals in their own homes.
By her reckoning, there are only two guinea pigs left in one store and a lone corn snake in another, none for sale.
"It is a strange time for any business but particularly so for pet stores, which are very social and chatty spaces. Normally, we love having customers bring in their own pets and stay as long as they like in the shops. We want them to enjoy the animals we have in stock. Customers will happily chat with staff about their pets all day long. But these aren't normal times," she says.
"The Government is asking essential retailers to do what they can to encourage customers to get what they absolutely need for their pet, pay and leave - and not to spend any extra time inside the store. That is not ideal for pet sales.
"When you're selling an animal, it requires consultation. Do you have the correct bedding at home? Do you have the correct food? It takes time to choose the animal, the fish.
"But that means encouraging customers to stay in the store longer, and we don't want to be seen to be encouraging that. So for that reason, we decided to take the animals off sale."
Guided by its parent firm in Germany, Maxi Zoo stopped taking new orders of live animals in early March, after the first Covid-19 cases were confirmed here, but before the Government started ordering schools, public events and - eventually - most retail premises to close.
For a tense few hours, Maxi Zoo managers couldn't be sure whether they would be forced to shutter operations too.
"The night the Government made the announcement that only essential stores would remain open, there were mumblings that it was only going to cover supermarkets, fuel and medicine," Long says.
"We felt we weren't in any of those categories. We couldn't tell staff for certain what would happen. Social media exploded with customers wanting to know if we were opening the next day. So we all had something of a sleepless night waiting for the full list to be released."
When that more detailed breakdown was published, Maxi Zoo found its salvation sandwiched between heating oil providers and laundries: "Retail sale of essential items for the health and welfare of animals, including animal feed and medicines, animal food, pet food and animal supplies including bedding."
"It didn't say 'pet store', but we were covered to keep going," she says.
While Maxi Zoo is significantly larger than its sector rivals Petmania (12 stores) and Pet Stop (seven stores), Long says its real competition is supermarkets.
More than two thirds of its sales are for dog food and dog care, and the big grocery chains stock dog products of their own. "The Tescos, Dunnes, Aldis and Lidls are the biggest competitors that we would have," she says.
Maxi Zoo's most recent accounts show it's a tight-margin business in the best of times. It posted net profits of less than €650,000 in 2018 on sales of €20.5m; the year before it netted €573,000 from €19.4m in sales.
Long says trading over Christmas 2019 and into the new year was strong. "The economy was doing quite well, the business was thriving. Prior to all this kicking off, we were in a really good position."
Now, she estimates sales are 20pc down on this time a year ago. "The second half of March was busy with a lot of customers stocking up. But this month is quieter, because of the restrictions in place, the guards out checking and questioning people. There's still a steady flow of people coming in, but it would be a lot quieter."
But Long says Maxi Zoo's liquidity is strong, it has no current need to seek any payment holidays from Bank of Ireland or Deutsche Bank, and has the added reassurance of having a strong parent firm, Fressnapf.
Founded 30 years ago by a young German entrepreneur seeking to replicate American pet superstores in Europe, the first Fressnapf launched a franchise model in 1997.
Today, the Fressnapf Group employs about 12,000 people at 800 outlets in Germany and 700 in 10 other countries from Denmark to Italy. It brands its franchises as Maxi Zoo in most non-German-speaking countries, while in the Netherlands it's known as Jumper.
In normal times, Fressnapf holds regular European-wide planning summits at its base in the North Rhine-Westphalia city of Krefeld. For Long, that means a three-hour drive to Dublin Airport, a flight to Düsseldorf, a 20-minute taxi to Fressnapf, a day-long meeting with more than two dozen fellow executives, and an evening return to Cork.
The next face-to-face gathering is still on the corporate calendar for May, but Long doubts it will go ahead. "I'm OK with the break from those trips, if I'm being quite truthful. It can be quite tiring. You have a long day and a late flight and then another three-hour drive home; they're long enough days," she says.
While the mobile signal in her Blarney home seems to disappear whenever she dials, Long finds Fressnapf's teleconferencing using Microsoft Teams and a laptop to be a remote working revelation.
"So many of our calls now are through Teams. It's really handy for bringing our team together throughout Europe.
"We do it by audio if there's 30 people and video if there's fewer than six. It's working great. I would consider myself a little bit of a technophobe with these types of things, but I'm becoming a fast learner."
Long is one of the longest-serving members of the Irish division, which opened its first outlet here in 2006 in Ballincollig. She had left her previous job at Blarney Woollen Mills to backpack in Australia, but returned home in 2007 and took what she thought was going to be a six-month maternity cover role in office admin.
"I thought at the time I'd gather some money and head on my travels again. I'm really passionate about pets. So I saw this job for Maxi Zoo and thought, 'that sounds lovely for me'. And 13 years later, I'm still here."
She's recently won recognition for her work, receiving the Rising Star Award at the Irish Women's Awards in January. Colleagues lauded her "as hard-working, dedicated, kind-hearted and an all-round go-getter".
Long says the goal for this year is to keep Maxi Zoo growing despite the crisis. While it has 10 outlets in the greater Dublin area and none on the west coast, it hopes to keep expanding around the capital.
"We were planning on opening three more stores this year. In the current environment, we won't be opening anything this quarter. Hopefully that will change towards the end of the year when things settle down. Trying to get landlords at the moment to do deals - it's just not possible. But our plan is to expand and that hasn't changed."
Finding the correctly situated premises is the biggest challenge. Maxi Zoo typically wants open-plan units of at least 600 sq m with easy parking outside, so that customers can load even bulkier items into their car boots.
"It has proven to be a big challenge to get the right units in the right locations. That will probably change with units becoming available," she says.
For this month, the focus is on sourcing masks and gloves for staff and erecting plexiglass shields at the tills.
Long says Maxi Zoo is thankful to be permitted to stay open. Most of its outlets are flanked by firms ordered to close indefinitely. "We're often the only business in the retail park still open," she says.
"I would be very grateful that our doors are still open. That's the sentiment from the staff as well. Everybody's very grateful to still be working. We all know somebody at home who's just getting the Government's salary, the 350 euros.
"That won't be never-ending. There's a cap of 12 weeks on that. And we don't know how long this pandemic is going to go on for," she says.
"So the general consensus at Maxi Zoo is that everybody's very grateful to have a job and that we can still pay people."