There was no sign of much change in consumer behaviour as folk lined up in their hundreds to buy cheap clothes from Penneys when its flagship shop on Dublin's Mary Street reopened 10 days ago after three months in mothballs.
Government pleas to "stay local and shop local" also appeared to go unheeded in the line outside Zara in the Dundrum Town Centre when its doors opened again last Monday while those standing in line outside Ikea a week before that seemed more concerned about what another country could do for them than what they could do for their country.
But major reopenings aside, there are still unmistakable signs that the habits Irish shoppers picked up over more than 10 weeks of confinement and curtailment might endure. While it is probably too much for Irish retailers to hope that Amazon will be Amazgone or Asos will go Awol, there is a definite sense that more people will choose to continue shopping in their local communities in the weeks and months ahead.
And if that happens we will all benefit. Yes, Dan’s Dodgy Deals which is operating out of a warehouse in a country 5,000km away might be able to sell you stuff cheap but at what cost ultimately? If we all shop online all the time then our local retailers will disappear and we will all be the poorer.
How much poorer? Loads.
More than two-thirds of the more than €5 billion Irish consumers spend online each year disappears overseas. If we are buying more and more online then we are losing the local multiplier effect which means that every €100 spent in the local economy is actually worth €500.
Local spending can increase by that much because the money circulates in the local economy. It is spent on locally-sourced goods and services and wages, which are also spent locally. But when the spending is online and outside the country, then all of the money is just vacuumed up and leaves the country.
According to the EY Future Consumer Index published earlier this month, the global consumer is changing rapidly, with 45 per cent of people saying that how they shop will change permanently as a result of the pandemic, with 38 per cent saying it will permanently change what they buy.
Speaking to this page last month about how the consumer mindset might shift, Yvonne Keily of that consultancy firm said an "interesting shift is how we will view time, talent and natural resources".
She said we would most likely regard such things as “increasingly precious, with traditional notions of status receding, replaced by purpose and social good. We are likely to see an increase in people buying local and, even more interest in transparency around the farm-to-fork and maker-to-model journey of our goods. The whole value ecosystem around packaging efficiency, the validity of brands and the ease of accessing, assessing and buying goods and services will also be under scrutiny.”
Jean McCabe, a retailer with boutiques in both Ennis and Galway and acting head of umbrella group Retail Excellence Ireland, told Pricewatch recently that after opening her shops in early June she had detected "a real appetite out there to support local businesses and get back to what is the biggest hobby in the world. I think that desire to shop local is something that will endure. People are really conscious about where they are shopping now."
Glenna Lynch, meanwhile, owns a sofa shop in Dublin and said the pandemic may give retailers the "impetus to offer something distinctly better than click-and-buy across all types of product. Maybe this is the arrival of unique offerings that will put the human and personal contact back into buying, the pushback against Amazon."
Kasha Connolly is the Willy Wonka of the west and the brains and creative heart of Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a small chocolate factory located in Co Clare. "I think the lockdown and the pandemic has recalibrated people's awareness of local businesses and it is almost like they rediscovered the absolute necessity of small shops," she says.
“It helped people to reconnect with their local communities and even after crisis lifts, even after people might take a little step back, I believe that connection with local retailers will endure. I think the pandemic made people realise that maybe that less is more, that maybe they don’t need 10 pairs of socks from Penneys and maybe I can have three pairs that I mind better.”
She says that as she has started to get back to the business of chocolate and coffee, it has been “really nice to see loads of people coming in. I think people like to see the connection between the producer and the product and to understand all the hard work that goes into making something. As a society we are re-evaluating so many things in our lives and shopping is just one of those elements. I think there is a much greater understanding today that if you buy local, then the money stays local, all that money stays in Ireland.”
She says the economic crisis the country is now confronting will impact on how people spend. “We are definitely going to mind our money because we’re going to have to mind but I think people might become better shoppers and spend more sometimes but buy less and keep the things they bought for longer.”
Certainly we could do with being better shoppers. We live in a world where too many people treat clothes almost like they are disposable items, with some shops selling stuff so cheaply that there is little incentive to take care of it.
Collectively Ireland throws away more than a million tonnes of food every year and about a third of what the typical shopper buys ends up in the bin – the cost to individual consumers is more than €1,000. The cost to the environment is almost incalculable. Local shopping has helped to reduce the waste, however, as it is easier to buy only what you need when you are not bombarded with special offers on stock you don’t want and don’t need at every turn in the supermarket.
"A big problem for Irish people is accessibility. They really want to shop locally and support the people in their communities – that is almost in our DNA – but there have been issues when it comes to the ease of doing that online and what our platform wanted to do was make that as comfortable and as pleasurable an experience as possible," says Tara Prendergast.
Her platform is thebiscuitmarketplace.com, an online platform which allows Irish artists, designers and producers get their products online in a comparatively simple fashion.
But in recent weeks Prendergast has been thinking about more than just the biscuit. “During the pandemic, people have had time to think about their lives and have had time to experience all the amazing local businesses,” she says. “And may of those business have started providing services in a completely different way.”
She suggests that a key focus in the weeks ahead should be “about keeping the money in the community, I think that’s incredibly important. Shopping local is obviously on trend now but it would be so simple to sleepwalk back into way we were I think it’s the responsibility of the media and the Government and influencers and retailers and people like me to campaign for local shopping to become an ongoing thing.”
She says people need to be reminded of the difference small acts can have. “I think it is important to keep telling people that if they spend even €5 more in their local community each week it makes a difference to the people you’re spending your money with. When you spend within your community almost half of what you spend gets recirculated in the local economy, it’s not much more than 10 per cent if you spend with a big multinational retailer and how much goes back into your local community it if you spend with a big online retailer based overseas?”
She concludes with a simple message for everyone. “I think what we could all do is look at three things we could in terms of spending that could make an impact on our local communities this week. Just keep it simple and if just 1,000 people were to do those things, whatever then might be, then it could make an enormous difference to people across the country.”
Just three things? How hard can that be?
Keeping it local – what difference does it make?
1. Help your neighbours. If you shop at locally-owned businesses, more of your money stays in your local community because locally-owned businesses tend to buy goods and serves from other locally-owned businesses.
2. A charity bounce. Charities have been hit hard by the crisis. While big companies – or at least some of them – contribute to charitable causes on a local level, local companies are likely to do that more frequently and in a more granular way.
3. The country character. While big retailers and online giants undoubtedly have a role to play, do we really want to strip the heart and soul out of our towns and villages by spending all our money with them? The US main street has been decimated by the Walmarts of the world. There will be no point mourning the passing of the shops and businesses that make Ireland unique if we do not support them while they are still here.
4. Think of the environment. Local shops buying local produce from local farms and selling it to local people leave a much smaller carbon footprint than giant retailers flying products in from all over the world to central distribution centres and then driving them all over the country to us. The locally-bought produce tastes better too.
5. Gizza job. The economy is facing enormous challenges in the months ahead as the aftershocks of the pandemic reverberate. If you shop locally you will support local jobs and everyone wins.
6. Better customer service. One of the things people have discovered in recent weeks is the pleasure of doing business with people who know their names. Many people were starved of human contact during the lockdown and the small interactions with local retailers became a lifeline and those local retailers deserve to be rewarded for that as things get back to normal. Not only that, a local retailer who knows who you are is more likely to entertain your complaints and care about looking after you when if there is a problem. Do you really think some AI bot working out of some server farm in Mongolia really cares if you are having a problem with that T-shirt you bought online?
Have a butcher’s: how it should be done
McLoughlin’s Craft Butchers is a third generation family business which has been operating in Dublin since 1965. It is run by a father and daughter team, Pat and Kate McLoughlin.
Their main business has long been the supply of beef, lamb, pork and cooked meats to some of Dublin’s finest restaurants and hotels, including Guilbaud’s and Coppinger Row but, with the closure of the entire restaurant sector last March, that revenue stream all but completely dried up.
It has been a different story entirely when it comes to the butcher shop and delicatessen in Ballyfermot and new avenues have opened up in recent weeks including a delivery service and a move into farmer’s markets while customers in the area have rediscovered the joys of keeping it local.
“For the past decade the shop has been in decline as we were surrounded by Aldis and Lidls and Tescos but the last few weeks have seen a reversal and we have really reconnected with people who maybe only would have come in at Christmas.”
Kate is realist and knows that many people will most likely return to their old ways of shopping with the big multiples once the country restarts and routines return. “But I think real connections have been made and I hope many customers will keep coming back to us,” she says.
She is not, however just hoping and nor is she willing to passively wait for customers to come through the doors. “Retailers like us have a job to do and we have to be inventive and creative and we have to diversify. Wholesale made up around 80 per cent of our business and it will be a long time before that comes back to the level it was so we have to continue to reach new customers and we have to explore new channels with online sales and markets.
“The job of a small business is to make it easy for people to shop with us. We can’t just sit back and wait for customers to walk into their local shops, we have to work hard at continuing to provide an excellent service, maybe by delivering to their doors or being where they are. We have to make it easier for people to support us”.
She says that as more people have shopped with local butchers and greengrocers they have come to appreciate the quality and the value to be found there. “People are going to be more careful with their money, of course they are, but I think shopping locally allows for better meal planning which will reduce food waste and ultimately save people money.”
What readers say
Last week on Twitter we asked if people had been shopping locally more in recent months than they might have done in pre-pandemic times and if they had any tips on how to do it better. This is just small selection of what came back.
"My farmer's market stalls have been developing click and collect and I now shop online for all my fresh and seasonal food midweek. What I can't get I add to my supermarket list knowing that my veg and fish orders are at Naomh Olaf GAA club food market on a Friday. Aidan's fish stall initially had a WhatsApp group for customers and offered a delivery service to cocooners but as the roads were so clear, he delivered to all. He now operates click and collect and still delivers to cocooners. The site is eastcoastfish.ie and IG @outofthebluemarket. Also the farmers market is IG @naomholaffood." – Melissa O'Callaghan
"I will be supporting local shops much more than large supermarkets from now on. Was pleasantly surprised at what a large range of items Behan's in Kill have. Great staff, efficient and pleasant. Think we will all reassess our shopping habits." – Mary MacRory
“Buying most of my books online from independent bookstores now and trying to support more Irish clothing companies/boutiques & pharmacies.” – Claire McGing
“Buy from horses for courses. Talk to your butcher. You wouldn’t ask a farrier to size your shoes or a dentist to treat your gout. Buy from merchants who know their product and customers. Buy local and try and buy Irish, if not buy European.”– Justin Leonard
“I’ve tried to [shop local]. But today a small specialist food shop in Dublin refused to take contactless payment as my purchase was under €5. I had no cash so walked off. Sometimes retailers do their best to discourage custom.” – Deryck Fay
“Small local shops all the way. Haven’t gone in a major supermarket since beginning of lockdown.” – JP McMahon
“I bought a new helmet at the local bike store (would usually shop Amazon), going to local fruit and veg shop and I’m only buying what I need – less waste. I cycle to the local butcher every Saturday with my kids, they love it.” – Mischa McInerney
"Noticed I could order from my local bookstore @WoodbineBooks so chose them over Amazon – they even dropped to my door for free. Also ordered the @BellLaneCoffee they use for the full experience!" – Róis Ní Fhloinn
“The seed potato company is another fabulous local service I discovered. Fabulous fresh fruit & veg!” – Elizabeth O’Leary
"If you can't buy it in Ventry post office, you don't really need it! Local butcher is amazing, keeps me special stuff and my dog is spoilt with bones. Also using @NeighbourFoodIE from @Pantridingle for delicious treats." – Deanna O'Connor
“Our local butcher and veggie shop played a stormer. Being able to leave a list in and then pick up later was a revelation. Joints properly sized for 4 rather than buying larger joints at cut price and creating lots of waste. My change. Buy right sized.” – Denise Edwards
"Yes @EnglishMarket & started shopping in @dunnesstores – I try to keep going before my vouchers expire. . . the stress! Have given up Amazon. Trying to avoid spending anywhere that isn't Irish owned." – Ruth Fuller
"Local butchers (Smyths, Raheny) a few times a week. Bread from bakery (the amazing Bread Naturally). The rest from SuperValu and Nolan's (local-ish)." – Anne-Louise Foley
“It’s often a simple case of looking for what you need locally. We don’t always know what’s available to us by our neighbours. Support a hard-working family whose kids go to the same school as yours. They give your kids birthday cards, lifts to matches.” – Juliet O’Connell