Early last month – in what seems like another world – Pricewatch was told by a retail expert that the shape of shopping in Ireland was on the cusp of a bleak transformation.
A decree would be issued closing all but non-essential shops, we were told, and the handful of retailers allowed remain open would have to introduce drastic new measures to keep employees and customers safe.
Strict limits would be imposed on how many people could enter a shop at any time and contactless payment methods would be favoured. Shoppers would have to keep their distance from staff and a massive increase in the number of cleaners and security staff on shop floors would be needed. Plexiglass barriers would spring up and long queues would form outside shops as rationing became commonplace.
The supply of stock would be good, we were told, but everything else would change.
“People are going to be scared shitless,” this person said, scaring us pretty much that way. “When people see their high streets they will be frightened and will have to behave very differently. Shopping for essentials will change completely and people will have to adhere to the guidelines or else the system is at risk of breaking down.”
The dystopian picture of the future shop was like something out of a B-movie. It was scary, for sure, but still remote. Two weeks on and it was reality. The consumer experience has been transformed so radically that it is almost hard to believe it has happened.
To their eternal credit, most shoppers have taken this grave new world in their stride. They queue outside pharmacies and off-licences and supermarkets, mostly with understanding and they dance around each other in aisles. They have mostly stopped gawping at people with face masks.
Often because they are wearing face masks too.
Retailers have stepped up with varying degrees of rigour. On a recent trip to Marks & Spencer on Mary Street, this writer was funnelled in one set of doors and out another. Our basket was carefully disinfected by a staff member. Security staff walked the floor reminding shoppers and staff to keep their distance and those manning tills wiped down conveyer belts and key pads between each customer.
At any other time, it would have been alarming. Now it is reassuring. Other supermarkets have taken similar measures. And – to borrow a phrase from one of them – every little helps.
Last week a scary – but important – set of guidelines landed in our inbox. The mail from the Irish Global Health Network (IGHN) highlighted a “disregard of hygiene standards” in some shops. While it said supermarket standards had improved it noted there was an inconsistency which, it described as worrying.
Its description of supermarkets as “high-risk sites of infection” was also worrying as was its suggestion that the careless handling of shopping in stores and at home was putting people in danger.
“We know that the virus can survive on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours,” said environmental health specialist Niall Roche. “It can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours. Supermarkets should adhere to the same guidance and practices that are being exercised in healthcare facilities, particularly for vulnerable shoppers.”
The IGHN, in partnership with the Environmental Health Association of Ireland and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in the UK, released a set of guidelines for shoppers which they said could help slow the spread of Covid-19.
Among those was advice to use the non-dominant hand to pick up goods to reduce the cross-contamination risk from touching of the mouth, nose or eyes – this is because we are much more inclined to touch our faces with out dominant hand so if we consciously use it less we are reducing the chances of becoming infected.
As tips go, it is simple and – hopefully – effective.
Among the other guidelines were for contactless payments to be made where possible and because of the capacity of the virus to live on surfaces, shopping trolleys, baskets, pin pads and other frequently-touched items should be sanitised after each use.
The guidelines highlighted individual responsibility and said consumers would also need to look after themselves by washing their hands immediately after returning home and taking great care when packing goods away.
Prior to stocking fridges and cupboards, shelves should be wiped with sanitiser and a paper towel. As coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces, the outside of all canned/hard surface pack goods should be wiped with a paper towel and warm soapy water.
An alternate option would be to leave non-perishable foods in a safe place for 72 hours. Remove outer food packaging and discard, being careful to limit handling of the inner packaging of items such as yoghurts.
The idea that we would have to take such care when doing something as simple as unpacking our shopping would, at the start of this year, have been outlandish. Now it is our reality.
Sparser shelves are our reality too. The panic buying of face masks and hand sanitiser was first seen in February but stockpiling at scale only really started when the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the first of the new world restrictions in the week before St Patrick’s Day.
According to a report published last week by price comparison website Finder.com, 47 per cent of Irish shoppers have been unable to buy essential items – such as medicine and toilet paper – in the last month.
The biggest shortages were for hand sanitisers and soaps, with almost a third reporting they had been unable source such products, while nearly one in five reported being unable to buy toilet paper. Ten per cent said they couldn’t purchase other toiletries, fresh food, dry food or medicine.
People over the age of 65 struggled the most, with more than half saying they had not been able to buy everything they needed in the last month.
It is worth pointing out – again – that, generally speaking, the reason for the shortages has been panic buying and not supply-chain issues and as we have all settled down things have returned to normal. Sort of.
What the main retailers say
In the wake of the guidelines being published Pricewatch contacted the five main retailers to see what measures they had taken to keep staff and shoppers safe. This is what they said.
Musgrave: "All of our stores have a range of social-distancing and preventative measures in place. When entering stores, customers will see reminders about social distancing at the entrance, along with hand sanitisers and staff to manage the number of people going in-store. There are limitations on the number of customers allowed in store at any one time depending on the store size. We would ask people to bear with us and respect the directions given in-store.
“Once in-store, we would ask everyone to respect each other’s space and avoid contact with other customers by observing a social distance of two metres.
“At checkouts customers may notice tape on the floor or signs showing them how far to stay apart from each other in the queue. They will be called to the till by the cashier and given additional advice. For example, where possible we are asking people to use contactless or by mobile phone for larger amounts.
“Obviously we are aware that some customers may not be familiar with these payment methods and prefer to use cash, and we would ask them to have patience with us if asked to place cash on the checkout and step back, before the cashier then places their change back on the belt. We have also made plexiglass available to stores across the entire SuperValu and Centra network.
“We also continue to ensure that all retail staff are fully aware of and are implementing best practice recommendations to follow a strict handwashing regime, with regular use of hand sanitiser also.”
Tesco: "Our stores are regularly cleaned, but we've also taken on additional cleaning services so that our trolleys, baskets, self-scan machines, 'scan as you shop' handsets, and chip-and-pin terminals are regularly cleaned with disinfectant products.
“Our colleagues are taking regular breaks to wash their hands thoroughly and we have provided them with hand and surface antibacterial wipes. Additionally, hand sanitiser is available to our colleagues, customers and delivery drivers and is regularly replenished across the day.
“We’re operating physical distancing in store and we’re reminding our customers with advertising, signage and messaging. Our colleagues in store are managing the store entry and exit process as much as possible and we thank our customers for their patience while queueing to enter stores, for example. We urge customers to follow all physical distancing guides in stores, when moving around the store and queuing at checkouts, etc.
At checkouts, we’ve installed plexiglass screens, as well as floor markings and signs to keep a two-metre gap at both ends, and we are also opening every second checkout, where possible, to create more space.
From a product perspective, we continue to follow the advice of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, who have advised that it is unlikely the virus is passed on through food and there is no evidence of this happening with Covid-19.”
Aldi: "A phased entry system that is strictly managed has been rolled out across all stores where required. Under this system, clear markings have been put in place showing the space customers must maintain when queuing to enter.
“Clear protective screens are being installed at every till across Aldi’s 142 stores.
“Slightly shorter opening hours to help support staff, who have been working tirelessly, also ensuring stores are at their best every day. Priority shopping hours for the elderly, their carers and those must vulnerable between 11am and 1pm daily, with all other shoppers encouraged to refrain from visiting stores during these times.
“In-store social distancing measures comprising posters, clear markings on the floor for queuing at checkouts and a self-service cleaning station upon entry for cleaning both trolleys and baskets. A request that customers are mindful of social distancing in store and use card payments where possible.”
Dunnes Stores: No response.
Lidl: "Over the past few weeks we introduced a number of preventative measures into stores including dedicated shopping hours for our elderly and other vulnerable customers taking place every morning. Prominent signage and floor stickers at tills and throughout store to encourage contactless payments and social distancing. In-store announcements reminding customers to maintain social distance. Additional security to maintain social distancing and prevent overcrowding."
She also pointed to the “regular spraying of store trolleys and baskets using a bio-misting spray which works to kill bacteria, spores and viruses while sanitising immediately; customer and trolley sanitisation areas; hand sanitiser for customer use at the entrance to all stores; hourly cleaning of touch points across till areas, shop floor, canteen, office and bathrooms; protective face shields for our front-line employees; perspex protective screens on tills; and bagged bakery items.
“We provide daily updates to our valiant network of employees and have issued comprehensive guidelines in terms of enhanced store-cleaning measures and social-distancing standards based on the ongoing advice from the Government and official agencies. We continue to monitor the situation as it develops, while staying abreast of the official updates issued by all relevant bodies.”
Shoppers suspect stealth price rises
Aside from public safety and supply issues, there has been another thing playing on the mind of shoppers in recent days: prices.
Almost as soon as the crisis began, people started highlighting what they believed were price hikes in pharmacies and in supermarkets.
Last week a reader called Jenny went into a small supermarket to buy a spray bottle of Dettol. “They were set up by the door on a display table with no prices. The guy at the till was mortified to tell me that they used to be €2 something and now were €6 something,” she says.
Another reader went into a supermarket in Dublin and was alarmed by the hike in prices for dairy. She said that by the weekend of March 21st, an own-brand carton of milk which normally sells for 75 cent had risen in price to €1.05.”
A third said she was a type-one diabetic and in a vulnerable group. “The last regular shop I did was Sunday, March 8th: €51.28. My sister did my shop the following week. Yes, she got different brands, slightly different items and it was closer to €60. Last weekend it was €70.”
In one supermarket, her sister bought a four-pack of 330ml cans of Diet Coke and paid €3.99 but says the price she normally pays is about €3. In another supermarket she bought vine tomatoes for €2.99, a euro more than she normally pays. Cussons Carex hand soap was €4.99, more than €1 that it normally costs. Tropicana orange juice, for which she normally pays about €3, was now €3.99.
There were many other examples of prices shifting and special offers disappearing.
So we asked the retailers about their pricing too.
A Tesco spokeswoman said that while the shop had seen demand increase for certain products, “we are doing everything we can to ensure customers can get what they need. Our promotional cycles continue as normal, where possible. We have not increased our prices and have no plans to do so at this time. To ease the pressure on our stores we have reviewed some of our shelf promotions and continue to ask our shoppers not to alter their normal shopping habits. We are working tirelessly with our suppliers to maintain supply and keep stores stocked.”
A spokesman for Musgrave said it still had “offers on approximately 2,200 products, including our popular SuperValu super seven and three for €10 across meat, fish and poultry ranges”. It added that money-back vouchers were still being issued. It neither confirmed or denied that prices of some stock in its shops had gone up in recent days.
A Lidl spokeswoman said it had “not increased prices on any staple items. We are acutely aware of the financial burden that is impacting thousands of families and want to reassure our customers that Lidl remains committed to delivering the best prices in the market for them”.
Aldi did not address the issue of pricing and there was no response from Dunnes Stores.
‘It’s my hardest year in 12 years of retail’
But just because the price of something is high, it does not mean that the shop owner is to blame.
James Ryan owns several Centra shops in Limerick, including one on O’Connell Street. He was prompted to get in touch with us after seeing his shop highlighted in a tweet sent to us by a reader about the price of hand sanitiser in the shop.
“I am very upset about these accusations,” he wrote. “I think at the moment people don’t understand the price of certain products. [Before the current crisis] I never sold sanitiser, masks, antiseptic wipes or gloves before. I am a convenience store and these are not the type of products I would usually sell,” he writes.
He says he “tried hard to get these out there as they are hard to get in the current climate and are products customers were asking me for. I ran out of wipes after one day. Yes, the sanitiser is expensive. But the sanitiser I eventually sourced was made in the UK as they can’t source it in cheaper-labour economies at present. The alcohol content is high and by reading the data sheets it is an excellent product,” he says.
He points out that sanitiser also has 23 per cent VAT attached to it. “The supplier charged me €13.75 per unit plus VAT. So this is therefore not an extortionate price. I also thought it was a fair price as it’s 200ml and 50ml is between €6 and €7 in the market. I am very upset about these claims people are making. I honestly took a lot of chances to try and get these products in.”
He says sales across his shops have fallen by almost 50 per cent and he is doing everything I can to stay in business and protect his 70 staff. “I have put down the hardest week of my life as I have spent 12 years trying to build up a business and it’s now collapsing from under me. These people who are unaware of the market price you pay upset me.
“The easiest thing for me to do is close the shops and all of these negative ‘keyboard’ people are making this closer to happening with the loss of 70 jobs. I have not tried to profiteer in the middle of this crisis, Not one other product that I would regularly have has changed price. A store that is down 40 per cent does not try to profiteer – they try to remain open by attracting customers. It’s my hardest year in 12 years of retail. In fairness to the Government, what they have done with wages is helping, but trying to get enough cash margin in to cover your fixed costs is almost impossible.”