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Safety first, selection boxes second: What will Christmas week look like in Irish supermarkets this year?

Tesco Ireland’s chief operating officer has urged shoppers not to panic.

Image: Sam Boal

JUST OVER 70 SHOPPING days remain between now and Christmas, which under normal circumstances would probably seem like ample time to get your ducks in a row.

But, as we keep being reminded, these are far from normal circumstances.

Our regular seasonal routines and rhythms look set to be for knocked for a loop by the pandemic and the uncertain trajectory of both the virus and the government’s thinking around public health restrictions.

Reports of pre-Christmas crowds gathering outside Smyths Toys in Dublin this week have us all wondering about what the pre-Nollaig rush is going to look like in the era of social distancing.

Even visits to Santa’s grotto might be put on hold this year.

And what about the Christmas Eve dash to the supermarket for the last few essentials before the big day?

But Geoff Byrne, chief operating officer of Tesco Ireland, believes the pandemic has completely altered consumer priorities. And supermarkets, he says, have had to respond in kind.

Gone are the days of cluttered aisles and “a stack of selection boxes here and a stack of Christmas crackers there,” he says.

“Now, you need to keep your floor clear and your aisles clear and not create pinch points where people could potentially bump into each other and break social distancing rules.” 

Byrne says that normally, customers and shops in the days before Christmas are mainly preoccupied with “the best special offers or the best prices”.

This year, however, he thinks that “the most important message for customers will be where and when and they can shop and how can they do it safely.”

“I think for everyone, that’s going to be much more important than a half-price tin of Quality Street,” he says.

“Selling selection boxes is way, way behind keeping people safe in our order of priority.”

With that in mind, what are big supermarkets like Tesco doing differently this year and what’s the expert advice?

Should you be worried about supplies?

Speaking from experience, Byrne says there’s really no reason for shoppers be worried about supply chains — even if we find ourselves at Level 5 of the government’s plan between now and 25 December.

So don’t go stocking up on toilet roll or tins of Jacob’s USA biscuits if restrictions are tightened.

“If you think about what happened in March and April when we went into lockdown,” he says, “that was really Level 5 plus a bit.”

He points out that all supermarkets were equally affected by the restrictions but that “the supply chain, and the industry in general, stood up to the plate very well.”

Byrne says that in the interim, the whole industry has had a chance to digest what works and what doesn’t and how best to protect customers and staff alike.

He believes the supply chain will hold up again.

“And I hope that customers will have learned that as well and will have more confidence in the supply chain. They might realise that last time, we actually didn’t run out. So there really was no need to panic.”

Separately, Aldi, SuperValu and Lidl told TheJournal.ie earlier this week that customers should be reassured that their supply chains are robust and that there is no need to panic purchase items.

What can you expect to see in supermarkets?

“What happened in March and April was obviously unprecedented,” Byrne says, “and we really had to think on our feet and make changes to ensure the safety of our customer and colleagues.”

Almost overnight, Tesco, like all of its competitors, had to change the way they do business.

Byrne and his opposite numbers in the other major supermarkets quickly moved to limit the numbers of people allowed into shops at one time as well as rolling out hand sanitizer and social distancing measures.

“I think as an industry we performed well. We did a good job. But it was really the result of a lot of on-our-feet thinking,” he says.

To make some of those changes “a bit more permanent” and to improve on them, Byrne says he and his colleagues sat down in the summer to review what they had rolled out.

Uppermost in our mind was what happens when the shops get really busy around Christmas so there was a lot of thinking over the summer around ‘how can we make this work for people.

Byrne told TheJournal.ie in June that “well over a million people” passed through the doors of a Tesco in Ireland in the first week of lockdown alone.

While the supply chain proved robust, there was a major uptick in customer numbers, which led to long queues.

With one eye on the Irish winter, Byrne says that Tesco is trying to make sure that queuing shoppers are sheltered from the elements by developing covered queuing systems.

Managing the inflow of customers is another challenge that had to be addressed in a more methodical way.

“Back in March and April we were physically, manually counting the number of people that were going into stores, to try and keep them down to a certain number,” he says now.

“We’ve operationalised that now by putting in a tech solution — a digital screen with infrared sensors that can properly count in and out the number of people.”

Tech solutions have been applied to other problems too, he explains.

Before the pandemic, Tesco had already rolled out a new ‘scan as you shop’ system — which allows customers to scan in their items and pay for them in one go at the check-in counter.

Originally designed to speed up the process and help customers keep an eye on what they’re spending, Byrne says it’s become increasingly relevant because of Covid.

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“So we now have that in nearly 50 stores and we’re going to have it in 80 stores by Christmas,” he says.

Doing the simple things right is also important, Byrne believes.

Barriers have been rolled between checkout lines to provide “hard infrastructure” for ensuring social distancing.

In the early days, Byrne says it was very hard to get hand sanitizer — “it was like liquid gold”.

Over the summer, Tesco partnered up with “a local supplier” to make sure there’s enough to go around its 150 Irish stores.

Tesco workers have also been supplied with high-quality masks, produced by the company’s clothing business, he says.

When is the best time to shop?

“If everyone tries to shop the way they normally shop this year, I think we would get there but the reality is that they won’t be able to get it done all at the same time,” he says, because of the customer limits. 

With that in mind, Tesco is extending its trading hours this Christmas.

From the last weekend beforehand, right through Christmas week, Tesco is going to be open from 7 am to midnight.

The logic — to, as Byrne says, “spread out the day so people can go at different times” — is obvious.

Even still, people might be concerned about long queues and packed shops.

“People think that Christmas Eve is our busiest day but it’s not,” Byrne explains. “It’s the few days before that that are busiest — the 22 and 23 December and then also Christmas Eve.”

The peak times are between “10 in the morning and the late evening,” he says.

His advice? Holiday shoppers to try to make sure they come in “a little bit before or a little bit after” that peak window.

“I think you’ll find it a bit easier to get around and you might not have to queue as much,” he says.

Yesterday, DublinTown, a group of 2,500 businesses in Dublin city centre, said shops are gearing up for Christmas and “increased on-street and in-store space management will be required to meet physical distancing needs”.

The group is urging shoppers to plan ahead and do their shopping early to avoid large queues.  

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