Your country needs you (to spend, spend, spend)


Dublin's mayor wants people to shop at home for Christmas, so will her rousing call to arms lead to a ringing of the tills, asks Fiona McCann

PATRIOTISM HASN'T been such a buzz word around these parts since Collins and de Valera went head to head over its definition back in 1922.

First it was Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan telling us the budget was "no less than a call to patriotic action". Now, Dublin's Lord Mayor, Eibhlín Byrne has announced that the city's Christmas lights will be switched on three weeks early as a call to "civic patriotism". (Although ironically, the tree that forms its centerpiece was brought in from France because, according to the Lord Mayor, no company here had the required lighting expertise to create it.)

So what have Christmas lights got to do with patriotism?

"When I talk about civic patriotism, it's about not passing the buck," explains Byrne, who says those who decide to take their custom outside the city must accept there are consequences to their actions, and stop blaming others for their economic woes.

"If you want to keep Dublin as vibrant as it is, then this Christmas you need to look at doing your shopping in Dublin and at doing your socialising in Dublin."

It's a message targeted at those set to zip off to New York or Chicago, or nip over the Border to Newry or Belfast, for their shopping. Byrne is emphasising the link between every euro spent in Dublin, and the kind of facilities the city can then provide for its citizens. "If you want the heart of Dublin to be beating, then you have to make Dublin the heart of your Christmas." The point being made in these penny-pinching times is if you're going to shop, shop local. And the Lord Mayor is not the only one making it.

According to Mark Fielding, chief executive of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (Isme), the loss to the Irish exchequer as a result of Irish people shopping elsewhere stands at some €300m annually. "That's what's lost in taxes alone, never mind the €1 billion that's lost in the retail trade in the country," says Fielding, who is angry at what he sees as the Government turning a blind eye to those who come home with suitcases full of overseas purchases.

Assurance from the Revenue Commissioners that it is again deploying extra resources this year to monitor the "shopping flights" do not impress Fielding.

"They said that this time last year as well," he says. "Their efficient use of scarce resources will mean they don't have enough resources to put into this."

But with exorbitant prices at home at a time when money is in short supply, aren't consumers entitled to a bargain or two?

"Of course goods are cheaper because they're not paying 21 per cent VAT, they're not paying between 8 and 12 per cent excise duty. If Irish businesses smuggled their goods in, and didn't pay duty, they'd go a long way towards matching prices," argues Fielding, who also points to the cost of doing business in Ireland, with rents, import costs, wages, and rates all serving to hike up the prices for consumers.

What may reassure Fielding is the fact that, with a strengthening dollar abroad and tight times at home, the numbers going on a pre-Christmas US shopping trip are down on previous years. According to Ciara Corcoran, marketing manager of American Holidays, while those who pre-booked their trips long before the economic downturn will still be jetting off, there has been a drop in the numbers booking to travel closer to the date.

"There is always going to be a market for people who want to do the shopping trips to New York, Boston and Chicago, no matter what. But clients who would historically have booked within four to six weeks of departure, those late bookings have fallen off," says Corcoran

Whether it's the call to patriotism or cashflow issues, it was clearly business as usual in places such as the Dundrum shopping centre this week. That it is busy there, however, is perhaps because customers are being encouraged to stick around by mid-season sales and discounts offered by the likes of Oasis, Karen Millen, A/Wear, Pamela Scott and River Island.

According to Fielding, sales and discounts are part of a strategy to keep customers spending, with businesses playing their part to ensure that money is parted with on Irish soil. "We're seeing mid-season sales, we're seeing two-for-one promotions, longer opening hours."

He says shops in Ireland are also relaxing returns policies in order to make it easier for customers to exchange or return goods. "If you're heading up to Banbridge or heading back to New York, then you've a problem with your returns." The emphasis is not just on shopping at home, however, but on buying home-produced goods as well. "If you spend €10 on Irish products, that will generate another €24 in the economy. If you spend €10 on imported goods in Ireland, it will only generate another €15. If you spend it in New York it generates absolutely nothing for our economy," says Fielding.

ANYONE WHO WAS AROUND in the 1980s will be familiar with the "buy Irish" mantra, and recall the Guaranteed Irish symbol, once a ubiquitous signifier of a product's Irishness until a European Court ruled that individual countries were not allowed to promote their own products as being better than those produced elsewhere within the EU. Guaranteed Irish went non-profit, and off the radar for the most part. Now this revamped symbol is making a comeback, according to Tom Rea, executive director of Guaranteed Irish. "We have seen a strong resurgence of the Guaranteed Irish symbol throughout 2008," he says.

"It'll never be as big as it was in the past, but what we're saying is that the product that you're buying now that is Irish made has to compete at the highest level in terms of price, quality and value, so one should have no fear about buying Irish any more." Instead, the message is that Irish consumers should be more afraid of shopping outside of Ireland, with Fielding insisting that they be made aware of the link between going abroad and job losses at home. "That is the awful effect that this downturn is having, and the effect of people shopping outside the jurisdiction that they don't see until it is too late," he says. "Having got a bargain on a Barbie doll in Newry or New York, they don't realise that somebody's going to lose a job as a result."

Which is where, according to Fielding, our patriotism comes in. "If you were to spend 10 per cent of your total spend coming up to Christmas on Irish products, taking that we have nearly 1.5 million households in the country, that would go a long way to sustaining jobs in Ireland and doing our patriotic duty as our Minister for Finance has been telling us recently."

This call to patriotism, Fielding is quick to point out, came before the Minister raised the VAT in the country by half a percentage point. Yet, regardless of how our Government officials define it, this new patriotism is one that Fielding and others are eager to see absorbed by Irish consumers in the run-up to Christmas. "The Isme model this Christmas, rather than dying for your country, is buying for your country."