A most peculiar year for Irish consumers

Shoppers grow more socially conscious as pandemic upends retail, travel and hospitality

Grafton Street in Dublin on the first evening that gastropubs and restaurants were allowed reopen again in December under level three Covid-19 restrictions. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Grafton Street in Dublin on the first evening that gastropubs and restaurants were allowed reopen again in December under level three Covid-19 restrictions. Photograph: Laura Hutton

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This time last year on this very page Pricewatch was pretty upbeat about the year ahead. The economy was going okay, the thorniest Brexit issues seemed to have been resolved with something close to common sense prevailing. Unemployment had fallen to levels not seen since before the crash and many Irish consumers appeared to be happy to spend money. There were holidays booked and paid for and all manner of fun family events to plan and to look forward too. What could possibly go wrong?

January

This newspaper carries a short story about a Chinese visitor to Thailand infected with a new strain of coronavirus linked to a pneumonia outbreak traced to Wuhan where several dozen visitors to a meat and seafood market have taken ill.

More than 90 per cent of people who buy gluten-free foods do not have a gluten-related disorder or coeliac disease and mistakenly believe such a diet has health benefits or will help them lose weight, a report from Safefood says. It suggests one in four people buy gluten-free foods while more than 90 per cent have no medical reason to do so.

The Central Bank says €350 million in punts is “missing” 18 years after the old currency ceased to be legal tender.

The people at DAA are upbeat as they announce that 33 million passengers passed through Dublin Airport in 2019. It is a new record. Goodbody is in good form too and says the domestic economy will grow by 3.6 per cent in 2020 but challenges including Brexit, corporate tax reform and housing are threats.

As January ends, confirmed cases of that mystery pneumonia in Wuhan climb well over 10,000 with hundreds dead. The illness has spread to 17 countries and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares the outbreak “a public-health emergency of international concern”. The Department of Foreign Affairs tells Irish citizens to avoid travel to China.

February

Red meat still dominates the Irish dinner and plant-based options are consumed less frequently than people claim, Bord Bia says. It also found that most Irish dinners involve an electronic device such as a television or a smartphone, while Irish people eat significantly fewer desserts than in 2011.

The general election takes place. It’s a draw.

Plans for a free-for-all at more than 100 tourist attractions across Ireland in the middle of April are announced as part of a tourism initiative aimed at tempting more people to staycation in 2020.

A “marked rebound” in Irish consumer and business confidence after the threat of a no-deal Brexit receded supports a more optimistic outlook for the economy, the European Commission says.

On February 21st, Italy reports its first coronavirus fatality and its first locally transmitted infection. Ireland’s home Six Nations match against Italy is called off.

Penneys warns of shortages as a result of supply issues in China. Panic buying of face masks strips pharmacies and hardware shops bare. Hand sanitiser can’t be found. Handshaking stops and people experiment with elbow touches and weird foot dances. At the end of the month a woman in Belfast becomes Ireland’s first Covid-19 case having travelled from Italy to Dublin across the Border by train.

March

British airline Flybe, which connected four Irish airports to cities in the UK, goes into administration following the collapse of last-ditch talks on a bailout from the UK government.

The Department of Foreign Affairs warns people against non-essential travel to northern Italy. Ryanair and Aer Lingus suspend flights there.

Tens of thousands of jobs in tourism are at risk across the country as the number of people from overseas booking holidays in Ireland dries up, hoteliers say.

In Japan, Australia and the United States panicked shoppers stock up on everything from long-life milk to noodles. We watch videos of people down under fighting in supermarket aisles over toilet paper.

On March 12th, Leo Varadkar in Washington says schools are closing. People pour into supermarkets, overloading trolleys. Rice, pasta and tinned food – anything with a long shelf life – disappears. Toilet paper – when it can be found – is rationed. Flour and yeast have their moment. There is a dramatic increase in sales of over-the-counter medications as people became “spooked” by coronavirus. Instagram is flooded with images of banana bread. Supermarkets roll out safety measures including social-distancing rules, more cleaning and disinfecting and dedicated hours for the vulnerable.

A great “work from home” experiment starts. People work out new – and arguably more efficient – ways to get things done. Meetings are faster and less frequent, day-to-day costs fall and time wasted commuting is better spent sleeping, eating, exercising, mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, playing with children and – sometimes – even working.

Public transport and the need for social distancing means buses, trains and trams have their capacity reduced. Plans for more and better cycle lanes are fast-tracked.

A long-established system of European Union-wide travel protections is close to collapse, says consumer champion Which?. Irish holidaymakers face huge losses on cancelled holidays as travel insurance documents invalidate cover in circumstances such as the spread of coronavirus. Human traffic through Dublin Airport plummets to more than 90 per cent less than a year earlier.

Private health insurers promise customers discounts as a result of the Government’s decision to bring all private hospitals under public control during the coronavirus crisis.

April

Ireland is now in almost total lockdown. The acting minister for transport, Shane Ross, considers allowing airlines issue vouchers instead of refunds for cancelled flights.

There is confusion over face masks. Some countries mandate they must be worn but the WHO voiced concern that wearing them could exacerbate shortages for health workers. Disposable masks sell here for more than €2 each. People are willing to pay that money.

Manicures and home baking become unexpected Covid beneficiaries, with sales of nail polish remover, fake nails, hand creams and baking trays going through the roof as people try to keep busy.

The Commission for Aviation Regulation sees a significant rise in complaints over the lack of refunds for cancelled flights.

May

After weeks in lockdown people flood Google with questions about the reopening of hairdressers and searches for tips on how to cut hair in the absence of professionals. There is also an eagerness to find out when Penneys might open its doors again.

Airlines react with fury to the European Commission’s fresh demand that passengers must be given cash refunds for cancelled flights and cannot be forced to accept vouchers instead.

Queues form outside hardware shops and garden centres as an easing of restrictions mean retail outlets in specific categories can reopen for the first time in seven weeks.

June

This is the month of reopenings. Dublin Zoo opens for the first time in almost three months. Then there are farmers’ markets, Ikea, Brown Thomas, Penneys, hairdressers, barbers and all the rest. There are screens at tills, reduced access to changing rooms, queue management and face masks.

Irish people feel considerably more secure when out shopping than consumers in other countries and are growing less anxious about their health and the wider implications of the pandemic, according to a survey from Deloitte

Hoteliers and tourism groups breathe a sigh of relief as the Government fast-tracks the reopening of some of the sector. From the end of June they are allowed cater for pent-up demand among domestic tourists in July and August.

The likelihood of travel to and from Ireland resuming recedes with Government sources saying there is “not a chance” restrictions and quarantine rules will be lifted before the middle of July. Even when the lifting of restrictions begins, the number of countries Irish people will be allowed to fly to is likely to be extremely limited.

July

So-called wet pubs, which were due to open, are told it can’t happen. The delay is described as “devastating” and a “kick in the teeth”.

Some parents sending children back to creches after months of closures are being asked to pay up to 10 per cent more for childcare from September, with providers blaming higher costs on the pandemic.

The Government rolls out plans to ease travel restrictions to and from some countries with the publication of a “green list” of countries with coronavirus infection rates similar to Ireland’s. Travellers returning from those countries will not have to self-isolate for 14 days.

August

A mask rule comes into force in shops and other indoor public settings such as hairdressers and museums. Those in breach of the rules can be fined up to €2,500 or face six months’ imprisonment.

The coronavirus crisis has disrupted the sleeping patterns of children and led to an increase in their consumption of so-called junk food, according to research published by Safefood.

Two-thirds of Ireland’s pubs will be out of business by the new year if current conditions persist, according to the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI). It says the vast majority of publicans have lost faith in how the Government is handling the pandemic.

September

Average broadband speeds in Ireland continue to be among the lowest in Europe, according to a global study. Ireland is in 51st place out of more than 200 countries, with a mean download speed of just under 35 megabits per second.

Irish consumers are the most anxious in Europe, and are increasingly nervous about shopping, eating out, spending money and using public transport, according to Deloitte.

A stay-and-spend scheme is launched promising people tax credits of more than €100 if they spend money in restaurants, hotels and cafes.

Dublin’s city centre is facing an existential crisis and a fresh shutdown which sees more business closing for good will have a devastating impact with the repercussions felt for decades, business umbrella group Dublin Town warns.

October

Queues form outside toy shops as people fear another lockdown. While shelves were not stripped bare as they were during the toilet paper shortages of the spring, demand for toys definitely spiked.

There are now no European countries on the green list of places where Irish people can travel without any restrictions imposed upon their return home.

People who wear face visors instead of masks to protect themselves from Covid-19 may be putting themselves at greater risk from the illness, with older people particularly vulnerable, experts warn.

Airlines owe at least €25 million to Irish consumers as a result of Covid-19-related flight cancellations, an Oireachtas committee is told. Ryanair is accused of dragging its heels. The committee is also told airlines are operating virtually empty ghost flights out of Ireland to avoid issuing refunds to passengers unable to travel due to restrictions.

Ireland enters a second six-week lockdown and non-essential retail closes again. People are told to stay within 5km of their homes, funerals and weddings are restricted and visitors are not allowed into homes.

A version of the national stout stripped of alcohol is launched by Diageo, which says the new Guinness 0.0 looks, smells and surges like the real thing. It makes its debut in Surrey, of all places.

Retailers modify stores to block off products deemed inessential in the wake of widespread Garda interventions aimed at ensuring they were in compliance with lockdown rules. The middle aisles of the German discounter disappear. The Minister of State with responsibility for the retail sector, Damien English, is slated for insisting that children’s clothes are not essential items under the criteria set down by the Government.

November

Diageo recalls its alcohol-free Guinness just days before it was due to go on sale in Ireland because of a “microbiological contamination” which may make it dangerous to drink.

Thousands of people look set to disregard advice not to fly home to Ireland over the Christmas period, despite dire warnings at the weekend that international travel in the weeks ahead will be a “recipe for disaster”.

The watchdog which overseas the Irish communications sector is to hold discussions with the Government to see if legislation is needed to force phone and broadband providers to deliver a better standard of care to customers.

Dublin Zoo says it is facing an existential threat and could be forced to close its gates for good if it does not find a way to plug an almost €10 million hole in its finances caused by Covid-19. It launched a Save Dublin Zoo fundraising programme and within five hours of making its plea had raised more than €1 million from the general public.

Irish shoppers are increasingly using their spending power to support social solidarity, with 50 per cent saying they are happy to spend on products once they are sourced locally, Deloitte’s latest state-of-the-consumer tracker says as it points to the rise of the socially-conscious shopper.

The customer care offered by Eir is condemned as “unacceptable” at an Oireachtas hearing. Eir’s chief executive, Carolan Lennon, outlines a list of reasons for the problems the company has, including its large size relative to others, the pandemic, the number of staff working from home, staff turnover, retail outlets closed during the lockdown and, weirdly, Sligo. She also says Eir pays its customer care staff between €21,000 and €23,000 a year. But denies a wage barely above the minimum could in any way have anything to do with the problems.

A 300-year-old Chinese vase sells for of €1.2 million at an auction in Co Laois. The vase sold for 1,000 times more than its list price and was a record at a public Irish art auction.

Ryanair started issuing refund cheques drawn on a German bank to Irish people who used travel agents to book flights cancelled due to the pandemic, and affected customers will likely face substantial bank charges and be forced to go into their banks to lodge the money as a result.

December

The State starts to reopen again as retailers report a “fresh buzz” around town and city centres, with “manageable” queues forming.

Air passengers should not automatically be considered high risk for spreading Covid-19 and should be treated like members of the local population who have not had any direct contact with an infected person, according to new European guidelines for air travel.

Pent-up demand for a meal in a restaurant sees a surge of bookings, with the availability of tables for the peak hours between 7pm and 9pm limited across the country as the sector reopens.

Children who made their First Communion in the time of Coronavirus see their earnings fall as the pandemic hit their holy payday hard, according to the annual Ulster Bank Communion Survey. While the average windfall fell from €617 last year to €588 in 2020, more than one in four received less than €200 compared with just 9 per cent who fell into that bracket in 2019. Meanwhile, 6 per cent of parents who took part in the research said their child had received more than €1,000, down from 13 per cent last year.

Christmas tree sales records tumble countrywide as growers and sellers reported surging interest over the course of their busiest weekend of the year as people look to kick-start their festive celebrations in earnest.

The vast majority of Irish consumers want to shop locally this Christmas to support businesses in their community and more than half say they will do most if not all of their shopping close to home this year. According to research from Visa, 76 per cent of consumers plan to make a conscious effort to shop local following the relaxing of restrictions to level three last week.

The price of some goods bought by people in Ireland from UK-based websites could increase by more than 40 per cent from January 1st after post-Brexit taxes and charges are added to the list price, Revenue warns. Consumers will not only face substantial price increases when shopping with UK-based companies but they could also see a substantial reduction in the rights they have when it comes to returns or seeking redress in the event that products are faulty or not as described, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission says.