‘Essential’ retailers risk a firestorm if they exploit the closure of the ‘non-essential’

German discounters Aldi and Lidl must tread carefully to avoid claims of unfair play

A deserted Grafton Street in Dublin in March of this year. File photograph: Collins

A deserted Grafton Street in Dublin in March of this year. File photograph: Collins

 

The arbitrary nature of the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” retailers will be exposed over the coming six weeks or so, as the Republic returns to a state of near-lockdown to drive down coronavirus infection numbers. It will also be a test of solidarity among the different types of retailers.

Towards the end of the first lockdown, in late April, the essential/non-essential distinction was a source of frustration for some retailers who remained shuttered.

Outlets such as toy shops and garden centres were required to remain closed while others that were open took advantage of their “essential” status to widen their product ranges and sell the wares normally stocked by those retailers that were restricted.

Many garage forecourts, for example, were transformed into quasi-outdoor bric-a-brac markets, selling hardware, bedding plants, children’s toys and various household goods. Meanwhile, the stores that specialised in such items had to stay shut and watch as any future pent-up demand for them was gobbled up.

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This time round, the German-owned supermarket chains Lidl and Aldi will have to be particularly careful from a publicity point of view. In their middle aisles, they routinely sell household goods and toys and clothing. It is a core part of their appeal.

However, if the German discounters are seen to widen their ranges of such products to exploit the fact that other retailers must stay closed, they may be leaving themselves open to accusations of unfair play.

A supermarket is obviously an essential retailer because we all need to eat. But is it essential for it to also sell children’s toys, frying pans, overalls, woolly hats, stationery, household decorations and accessories? If the answer is yes, then why aren’t the retailers that specialise in such items also considered essential?

Compounding the frustration for the retailers that must stay closed under the new restrictions is that the virus resurgence is not their fault.

There is zero evidence of widespread transmission taking place in shops. People have been routinely wearing masks while shopping for months. The shops adhere to stringent safety measures. What else could the retailers have been expected to do to stay open? Yet it seems it was all for nothing.

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