The announcement by Taoiseach Micheál Martin that non-essential retail will be allowed to stay open after Christmas but winter sales will have to be scrapped or deferred was greeted with relief, confusion and surprise across the industry.
While retailers said they are pleased to be allowed to remain open as Ireland gets ready to enter a new lockdown phase immediately after Christmas, they said there is a lack of clarity as to how they might trade.
Many say they have little choice but to discount seasonal stock in order to make room for spring and summer lines while umbrella groups representing the sector say sales periods have been running for weeks.
“Black Friday at the end of November really is the start of the sales period and especially this year,” said Duncan Graham of Retail Excellence.
“The announcement was new news to us but everything is very fluid. Less than 24 hours earlier I thought non-essential retail would have to close on December 26th so I am delighted we are to be allowed to stay open.”
He said he would be seeking clarity from the minister of State with responsibility for retail Damien English on Wednesday morning.
Retail Ireland, the Ibec group that represents sector employers, welcomed the decision by Government to keep retail open under the new Covid restrictions. It said the health and safety of customers and staff would remain top priority.
Retail Ireland director Arnold Dillon said avoiding further retail restrictions is "key to the viability of many businesses in the sector". And he added that customers are "shopping very differently to how they used to, they are spending shorter periods in shops and browsing less [which has meant] . . . that only a tiny fraction of Covid cases have been linked to retail settings."
He suggested that the announcement provided a solid basis for “keeping all of retail open and trading over the coming weeks and months. The rapid rollout of the vaccine is now crucial to getting the entire economy back to normal.”
Responding to the request for January sales to be deferred, Mr Dillon said public health is “the absolute priority. The sector will work with Government to implement any additional measures needed to ensure the safety of customers and staff.”
However some people questioned how the call for winter sales to be scrapped could be implemented. Retail expert Eddie Shanahan described the announcement as "bizarre".
He said that most retailers are already in sale with discounts of as much as 40 per cent on offer “I think what this does causes more confusion. And while I understand the concept of wanting to keep large crowds off the streets, it displays a lack of understanding of how retail works. 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 – from the big stores like Brown Thomas to the shops that can accommodate two or three people.”
He added: “I think whatever happens, there will be discounts over the next four to six weeks. There won’t be the big red signs in the windows.”
TU Dublin academic Damien O’Reilly said the sales would continue even if they are not called sales. “They may be special offers rather than sales and the headline discounts like the €1,000 television for €100 might not be there, but the Government cannot dictate prices and retailers will continue to charge what they need to to keep their businesses operating.”
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe warned non-essential retailers who will remain open during renewed restrictions that they have “a very special, a particular responsibility on their shoulders” to keep their customers and staff safe.
He said traditional “January sales” or post-Christmas sales “can’t happen in the way they have,” in other years.
He expects the restrictions to cost between €20 million and €25 million for the duration of the lockdown depending on the number of companies affected. Increased unemployment will be in the “tens of thousands”.
He said Budget 2021 was framed in anticipation of public health restrictions on this level.