You'll have seen the emails: New lines 25pc off! 40pc off! 70pc off! Brands big and small are grappling with the coronavirus shutdown, attempting to offload their spring-summer collections online at increasingly urgent, unseasonal discounts. And tempting as such 'deals' may sound, consumers are hesitant about pulling the trigger on a purchase, grappling with the moral question of whether or not to shop.
The high street lockdown has hit hard: Debenhams, Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston are set to file for administration, and major retailers including Next and River Island have closed their online operations, while Brown Thomas and Arnotts have resumed trading with a limited offering. Yet people are still spending - online sales jumped by 110pc in March compared to the previous four weeks, according to data from Irish marketing agency Wolfgang Digital.
At the same time, stories continue to emerge about the lack of protections for delivery drivers and warehouse workers. Asos has been criticised by staff who say they feel unsafe working in its Barnsley distribution centre, describing it as a "cradle of disease". The online retailer has denied these claims are true. Workers for Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo told the Guardian it is "practically impossible" to follow social distancing guidelines in their depots. Unite the Union has called for greater support for drivers after being inundated with complaints about non-essential deliveries.
With people dying, a recession looming and workers at risk of infection, shopping for non-essential items seems selfish, reckless, even shameful. But it is also what fuels our economy, and small businesses are under threat, too, many of them struggling to cover staff salaries and rent on bricks-and-mortar stores. Plus, retail therapy can bring some much-needed relief in the gloom of isolation.
"There is a balance to be struck here," says Eddie Shanahan, retail consultant and chair of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers. "We're in a situation where several big players have stopped taking online orders. Others, like Brown Thomas and Arnotts, have gone back online with a smaller, more targeted offer. And in addition, you have a third level of very small makers. These are people first, with families to support.
"I would think that very, very aggressive selling online would be a mistake. I think the consumer is smart enough to understand that. But I also think consumers, and I've seen many of them on social media, are encouraging us to maybe buy a voucher from a small maker and support them. But there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of small makers right across this island that would really appreciate the encouragement, the stimulation, the motivation right now through a few small orders."
Carol McHugh launched her online-only womenswear brand Joe Noe in January, and says she has wrestled with whether to close up shop until the pandemic passes.
"I am definitely locked in the moral dilemma of do I deliver, do I not deliver?" she says. "It is a difficult one, because if we don't ship, then our business won't exist.
"As a new brand, it's hard to know the rights and wrongs. My partner actually works in construction and they're reopening sites. If construction is going on and they're working side to side, then is it wrong to say I can't post a parcel to a customer who will receive it on their doorstep?"
E-commerce can provide a lifeline for many small businesses. Margaret O'Rourke, owner of MoMuse Jewellery, closed her shop in Powerscourt Townhouse last month, and is hoping to generate enough revenue from her online sales to meet the rent on her physical location. Unlike many brands, she hasn't reduced prices on her stock.
"I thought about doing that, but to be honest, this is key for me, I'm a small business and we still have to pay rent. We need to survive and we don't know how long this is going to go on."
As the quarantine stretches on, our attitudes towards consumption appear to be shifting. More of us are realising that where we spend our money matters. While some shoppers may be stocking up on €7 boob tubes from fast fashion brands, many are reevaluating their idea of a 'meaningful purchase', by buying local to support small brands, sending gifts, or investing in high-quality loungewear and home accessories to make time indoors more comfortable. Data from MatchesFashion.com shows sales of candles have increased 100pc compared to last year, while throws are up nearly 300pc and cardigans more than 200pc.
Margaret notes that candles have been a big seller for her, but the majority of orders are gifts.
"There are big birthdays, anniversaries, surprising people - for example, one customer has a friend who has coronavirus, he sent her a gift with a note. There are so many stories. It's quite heart-wrenching, because people can't see people, they have no contact with each other from one end of the country to the other. It's kind of nice really."
Shopping for ourselves, meanwhile, can be optimistic: we hope to wear those earrings or that blouse on some future occasion, when this pandemic is behind us. And it can be a little pick-me-up for the present moment, too.
"People have said to us that buying this dress has given them hope: 'I've got something to look forward to', or 'I've got something to brighten my day'. Bright colours can lift people's moods as well, so people are coming back to us with comments that 'This is giving me a bit of joy, I can't wait to wear it when this all blows over'," says Carol. "It's giving people a bit of a mental lift."
Of course, there are many people who don't have the luxury of treating themselves or a loved one, as coronavirus continues to put people out of work. Others may be more focused on conserving funds in the case of a post-pandemic recession. And still others may not be comfortable ordering any non-essential deliveries.
There are still ways to support Irish designers: buy a gift voucher, if you can afford it. Follow them on social media, like their posts or tag your friends in the comments to spread the word and help build their consumer base. And, Eddie emphasises, encourage your family, friends and neighbours to shop Irish.
"Particularly when the recovery comes, that is going to be really, really vital, right across the spectrum of small retailers, large retailers and also Irish makers," he says. "If that brings the consumer, the retailer and the maker together in supporting the Irish economy and in supporting the recovery, I think we will achieve a lot."