Christmas sales: ‘They will be a lot more muted this year’

Covid rules, altered retailer behaviour and public nerves have changed the landscape

Shoppers on Grafton Street in Dublin in the lead-up to Christmas. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Shoppers on Grafton Street in Dublin in the lead-up to Christmas. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

When is a sale not a sale? Today.

This time last week retailers across the State were gearing up to launch their winter sales on a St Stephen’s Day like no other, optimistic despite the gloom that they would be able shift the stock they struggled to move before Christmas.

Dedicated followers of fashion, meanwhile, were readying themselves for a post-Christmas splurge.

But then the bombshell announcement came from the Government that while non-essential retailers would be allowed to remain open – unlike gastro pubs and restaurants – they would not be allowed to go into sales mode as normal.

The announcement caused much confusion across the sector, not least because many, if not most, shops had been discounting since being permitted to resume trading in early December.

Retail expert Eddie Shanahan describes the call for a deferment of the winter sales as “bizarre” and confusing.

“ I understand the concept of wanting to keep large crowds off the streets but it displays a lack of understanding of how retail works,” he says.

“I would rather see retailers trusted to manage those who come into their shops, and all the evidence shows that they have been doing that well,” he added.

He says that “whatever happens, there will be discounts over the next four to six weeks, although there might not be the big red signs in the windows”.

Duncan Graham of Retail Excellence echoes those sentiments and says sales are an essential part of the business. He also stresses that it would not be possible to have sale prices online with higher prices in store.

“Imagine the complaints if they did that,” he says. “Apart from anything else, if retailers had to charge more for their stock online because of restrictions in the physical stores then it would only have the affect of driving more retail business towards overseas-based sites.”

Diluting

That is why that the sales will take place but may not be called sales. Shops will continue with their reductions as planned but will almost certainly scrap or dilute their marketing and take signs boasting about bargains out of the windows.

Brown Thomas and Arnotts had both been planning to to into full winter sale mode as of today but instead pivoted to a traditional winter sale online while applying “seasonal discounts” in-store, many - if not all - of which had been rolled out in the run-up to Christmas.

“Of course shops are going to be in sale mode in the post-Christmas period,” says retail expert and Technical University Dublin academic Damien O’Reilly. “It is only a matter of terminology. Will it be a special offer or a sale?”

He says it would be unwise for Government to attempt to dictate the prices charged by retailers.

“That is not something they can do, and retailers are allowed to charge what they like. Many of them will have bought in stock for the sales and will have no choice but to sell it as planned.”

O’Reilly says the evidence of the pre-Christmas spending is indicative of what might come in the days ahead.

“It wasn’t manic,” he says. “There were not the queues we had maybe expected, and people were all very careful.”

He also points to the dramatic shift of spending to the online world and points to the absence of a place for people to go as marking another shift.

“There is no market for occasion wear and people are still buying athleisure,” he says. “The areas to watch will be furniture, homewares and electrical goods, but even then a lot of that was bought by people during the lockdown with sales up by more than quarter.”

“Ultimately, I think people are screaming out for normality but they are also onside with the public health measures and they are scared, particularly of this new strain from the UK.”

Managing stock

Shanahan does not anticipate that this year will be a bumper one for bargains in any event. He suggests that many retailers have proved themselves adept at managing their stock levels during the crisis and have been able to keep trading during the most recent lockdown in online and click-and-collect channels, which means there may not be large volumes of stock to shift.

“From what I could see, at least in Dublin, was there was not a lot of stock in stores in the run-up to Christmas, and I think that could mean there will be a less frantic sales period than normal.”

The absence or otherwise of bargains will not, however, be the determining factor in how busy towns and cities get, he believes.

“People remain on high alert, particularly with the new strain of Covid that emerged in the UK just before Christmas, and I really think that will make many people think twice before the coming into busy retail settings, particularly if they get a sense crowd volumes are building up.”

He says awareness of the realities of the crisis had been evident throughout December even across the weekend before Christmas Day, which is traditionally one of the busiest shopping windows of the year, when queues were few and far between and there were spaces to be found in car parks.

“We will definitely see smaller numbers in stores than previous years, and I think retailers might look to extend their opening hours as they did before Christmas in order to accommodate both staff and shoppers.”

Softly softly

David Gibney, of Mandate trade union, which represents many retail workers, says many retailers, big and small, are taking a more softly-softly approach to the sales this year.

He says one notable difference between this sales season and previous ones is that retailers have not exerted pressure on staff to work and have instead asked for volunteers.

“I think they have recognised that there is a business case for not pushing sales too hard, and while many will open this weekend, the reality is that the demand among consumers is unlikely to be the same as previous years,” he said.

“With the social distancing rules that are in place and the need to restrict numbers, there is also not going to be the need to have as many people on the shop floor as in previous years.”

Another feature may see discounts stretched out over a longer-than-normal period to stop people flooding the shops this week.

“I think there might be fewer deep discounts and not so many immediately after Christmas, with some being phased through January,” Graham says. “The sales will be a lot more muted this year. I think that is certain.”