The imposition of a Level 5 lockdown was a hammerblow to retailers selling “non-essential” items across the country.
With Christmas just around the corner, the timing couldn’t have been worse. But given the healthcare emergency we are facing with Covid-19, retailers accepted the decision and closed their doors with heavy hearts.
We are nearly halfway through the lockdown and retailers across the country – who employ nearly 300,000 staff around Ireland – are now asking the Government for assurances on three crucial policy pillars as we plan for the successful reopening of the industry in the coming weeks.
This is crucial not only for a successful Christmas season but also for the industry as a whole as we plan for 2021 and beyond.
One of the frustrating – yet entirely necessary – elements of Covid-19 restrictions has been the swiftness with which they have been enacted.
Retail and other industries have not been given enough time to plan for mass closures and indeed reopening again. Retailers need time to organise stock levels and ensure staff rotas can be filled to enable safe shopping in their shops.
For now, we have been told Level 5 restrictions will be eased at the start of December and, with that in mind, retailers are calling on the Government to confirm its plans to reopen non-essential retail by November 15 so retailers can prepare for the crucial Christmas shopping weeks.
This is without question the busiest period of the year and we cannot have a situation whereby a reopening date is delayed at short notice, which would have a hugely negative effect on retailers.
Furthermore, we have seen case numbers drop steadily since Level 5 was introduced in recent weeks. If this continues, it is only right and fair the Government approves an earlier reopening of non-essential retail to give retailers the best chance of making up the losses accrued from lockdown.
For example, Black Friday, which falls on November 27, is traditionally one of the busiest shopping weeks of the year and the current restrictions would mean retailers could not open that weekend.
This request is not without foundation. When retailers reopened in the summer after the first lockdown ended, shops were proven to be a safe environment for shoppers, with extremely low transmission rates of the virus documented.
Retailers around the country are committed to upholding those safe standards and ensuring shoppers can buy items they need, comfortably and at ease.
They have already ensured their shops have adequate supplies of hand sanitisers and installed Perspex screens at check-outs to ensure the safety of both staff and customers. They have also consistently ensured that customer numbers have stayed within the required limits at all times.
So it makes sense from both a commercial and healthcare perspective for retailers to be allowed to reopen earlier than planned so that they can manage demand efficiently during the busy weeks ahead.
Initiatives like the Government’s Employee Wage Subsidy Scheme and Enterprise Ireland’s Online Retail Scheme have helped the retail industry, but the fact remains that more is needed if retailers are to recover and thrive in 2021.
A significant amount of businesses simply cannot pivot to online retailing at scale and in a short space of time, despite their best intentions, so the Government must ensure footfall can begin again as soon as possible because that is the only way many retailers can make sales.
Retailers also need support on rents; we have heard countless reports of landlords demanding full rents for the period when retailers could not open. This is an unfortunate reality even though many retailers have been unable to trade for up to 20 weeks this year.
This is unfair and potentially devastating for small companies that need a helping hand during the worst crisis the retail industry has ever faced.
It is beholden on both the Government and landlords to come up with a fair solution.
Furthermore, retailers are trying their best to encourage people to shop local and shop Irish. In order to effectively get the message across, it would help greatly if the Government were to dedicate funds towards this campaign so we can drive the message to the entire population over the coming weeks.
Now more than ever, Irish retailers need the support of the public as we look to bounce back in 2021. If this support can be secured, then we will have a much better chance of safeguarding thousands of jobs now and in the future.
This lockdown has been catastrophic for the retail industry but now we have the chance to help our local businesses get back on their feet if these policy pillars are given the right amount of time and attention.
Retailers want to be able to comfortably meet consumer demand while ensuring the safety of shoppers.
By following through on these core pillars, the Government can give the retail industry the helping hand it badly needs and make sure that everyone benefits.
Duncan Graham is the managing director of Retail Excellence.