It was almost as if someone somewhere had flicked a switch and turned a light on over Dublin. The gloom that has shrouded the city centre since the start of the year lifted overnight with the seemingly endless despair of the lockdown months suddenly replaced by optimism, joy and mountains of cheap knickers.
While retail across Ireland will not fully emerge from its depressingly mothballed state until next week, shopping by appointment is the new "new normal" and the novelty of booking a slot in Penneys coupled with a desperate need for clothes meant queues forming outside the Mary Street branch on the hour, every hour, from 7am.
Under the new rules of engagement, Penneys is allowing 100 shoppers through its doors every 60 minutes from dawn to dusk. There are 45 minutes allowed for shopping and 15 minutes for paying and leaving the shop. The public address system ominously alerts everyone to the unstoppable march of time each 15 minutes.
Given the pressures all Monday’s shoppers were under, The Irish Times was just a bit afraid when making our approaches that we would have the heads bitten off us. Or worse. Who were we to be standing in the way of clothes?
Our fear was entirely misplaced and everyone we spoke to was delighted to take a 60-second break to talk about why they were there.
"I'm here for the socks, the pyjamas, the leggings and the knickers. You'd really miss Penneys, even for the little things for birthday presents. It is just so nice to be able to physically hold things," said Aoife O'Connor from Clondalkin. "It is brilliant, there is hardly anyone in here and no queues. I'm delighted now I booked appointments for everyone I know."
Laura Johnston from Ringsend was weighed down by two large Penneys bags and one small baby. "I have knickers, pyjamas, leggings, shorts and loads of clothes for the baby," she said. "I missed it so much, I missed it terribly. My baby is 1½ and he hasn't had a sock to his name for months. He has loads of them now."
Another baby, one by the name of Frankie, was staring up at his mammy, Gillian Duggan from Clonsilla, as she piled clothes high on every available surface of his buggy. "I'm very excited to be back, it's like a supermarket sweep," she said.
Even though Frankie came into the world just 10 weeks ago, his mam was full of beans and can-do spirit. “We have loads of appointments today,” she said. “Next there is Zara and then JD Sports and Bershka and Stradivarius at 2pm. I am really getting the steps in today, that’s for sure. I’ve missed it, it has been a very hard year so far.”
If anyone needed proof that shopping is as much an emotional experience as it is a means to acquire stuff, it was on the faces of all the happy shoppers as they went through the racks with one eye always on the time.
Not even a face mask could hide Aisling Walker’s smiles. The woman from Oliver Bond Street said she was “delighted to be back, absolutely delighted. I have underwear and pyjamas, but really it is just the thought of being in Penneys. And the appointment thing is great, I’ll be in and out before you know it.”
Michelle Brady from Donard Avenue in Dublin 7 was equally thrilled. "You'd miss Penneys terribly, it's like a magnet so it is. Before all this, on Saturdays I'd come in with my three grandchildren and we'd go shopping. It was a little treat. I am buying stuff for them today and for my husband. I might take a little spin up to Dunnes now too."
Aisling Alcock from Coolock was on her second Penneys appointment of the day having spent an hour around the corner in the O'Connell Street branch just after dawn. "I wasn't sure I'd get Mary Street so I booked there first and then I got here too so I took both appointments," she said. "So far I've spent three-fifty so I might have to budget a bit now."
When asked if she meant €3.50, she laughed: “G’wan out of that.” Then she disappeared, but minutes later was back, having scored a gold elephant and other bits and pieces for her beauty salon. Her sister was in tow this time.
Tracy Alcock was shopping with her 10-week-old daughter, Ruby. "It is her first trip to Penneys but I think she is going to be a fan just like her mam," Tracy said. Ruby said nothing but she looked intrigued by the world around her. "It is brilliant to get out a bit and to buy some clothes for her."
The staff manning the tills were full of smiles too. “It’s great to be back,” one told this newspaper as it queued with an armful of socks, T-shirts and baby clothes bought for, um, research purposes. “You’re the first man we’ve seen in here all day,” her colleague added.
Outside Penneys, the city was suddenly alive with people. It was almost like Dublin in the rare auld times. There were people carrying bags, talking and laughing as they went about their days. There were scores of people waiting for appointments outside Zara and JD Sports and other shops along the stretch from Mary Street to Henry Street.
Outside Arnotts, the queue was being policed by a woman dressed in super-cool black. As people approached her she checked their names on an iPad and in they went.
Caoimhe Byrnes from Artane was wandering the cosmetics hall with a couple of bags already under her arm. "I am delighted to be back out shopping," she said. "Shopping online is just not the same, there is no atmosphere and you have to wait for the stuff to arrive – but this is instant retail therapy."
Aideen Dune was almost as thrilled. “It feels like Christmas here today. More than the actual shopping, it is the return to normality that I am loving. The last lockdown was the toughest but I really think we are getting there now and the summer is going to be great. Hopefully this is the end of it now.”