“It is hard to see so many people in other shops”, is how the owner of one fashion store in a small town put it.
“I see people outside my closed bookshop queueing to buy coffees next door, yet I can’t have them collect a book from the front door of my shop” is how another frustrated retailer described how she felt about not being allowed to operate click and collect services.
When it comes to closing down non-essential retail to protect people’s health, the Government definitely has a point. But when it comes to prohibiting click and collect services, which would especially benefit small retailers who are on the brink, the restrictions are on more shaky ground.
Retailers were hugely disappointed when they were told that click and collect would not be re-opening until next month at the earliest.
It is extremely difficult for retailers who are completely closed to stomach essential retailers selling their goods.
In truth, retail restriction codes have become completely muddled, complex and very unfair.
What is essential? We have seen the very late change of mind regarding children’s footwear. I know of one person who wanted to buy flowers on Valentine’s Day while passing through any one of a number of towns on his long journey home from essential work.
Valentine’s Day flowers may not be classified as essential, but they can be certain circumstances.
Florists are open for deliveries. He thought, why not deliver to a newsagents around the corner and he could pick it up there. No the florist said she couldn’t really do that.
She came up with a solution. He would pay over the phone, ring her mobile number when he had parked across the road from the shop and the florist would place the flowers on the back seat of his car (passenger side for extra distance). The whole transaction resembled the delivery of drugs more than delivery of a bunch of socially distanced flowers.
I myself recall going into a pharmacy close to Valentine’s Day, and passing the giftware counter where there was a sizeable gathering of people at the counter buying up cosmetics, jewellery, gift sets etc.
Nothing wrong with any of that except jewellers might legitimately argue that they cannot open or even do click-and-collect.
Bigger retail chains are better geared up for full online shopping and delivery. Small retailers in country towns are very often not able to do it. The costs and hours to maintain it are too great.
Smaller shops could benefit the most from click-and-collect. All the more reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to do it, you might argue. You can’t have lots of people in a tiny shop collecting purchases.
The other major argument is around preventing unnecessary journeys. Buy somebody a book as a present. Collect it at the shop and you might be tempted to call round with it yourself and stop by ‘just for two minutes’.
However, click-and-collect was operating during the second lockdown in October and November. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that it contributed significantly to an increase in cases.
The big wave came in December when people socialised a lot more.
Retailers argue that anybody coming to town to click-and-collect is coming to town anyway. It is mainly local business which they will conduct while in town buying other items.
Retailers also argue they can enforce good social distancing measures in click and collect situations.
Yes, there may be some who would use it as a cover to simply open the shutters and sell pretty much anything that is on the shelves.
But anyone who is tempted or likely to break the rules is probably breaking them right now.
We are seeing some blatant breaches of the existing, very harsh, rules. We have all seen them.
Government policy must take into account the possibility that some people will break rules. However, this far into one of the toughest lockdowns in Europe, is it sustainable to continue with so many rules which assume rule breaking rather than rule taking?
Chances are that click-and-collect will come back sometime in May, ahead of a full re-opening of all retail later in the summer.
In theory, another month or six weeks won’t make that much difference to small retailers around the country.
Sadly, it might. The country is already full of shuttered shops which will not reopen.
Others are close to making that decision. Every zero turnover week that goes by, doesn’t just affect the balance sheet of small firms, it also affects the mind, energy and drive of people who run their own businesses.
Big retailers have done well during this pandemic.
Dunnes Stores is probably selling more food than ever. True it cannot sell non-essential items, but as a multi-billion euro private family business, it had to be contacted by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment over selling non-essential goods and its website offering click-and-collect services.
Following the contact from the Department, Dunnes removed references to its click-and-collect service from its website, which as of last Thursday stated that the service was “temporarily unavailable” in the Republic of Ireland.
Dunnes Stores will be around for a long time as a hugely successful enterprise. Thousands of small retailers who have played everything by the book during this pandemic could operate click and collect safely. Yet they have not been given the chance.
The whole situation around who can sell what, has become blurred and confused for consumers. This undermines the effectiveness of the restrictions while also penalising small businesses who have done nothing wrong.