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Explainer: Why are some non-essential retailers continuing to operate in Level 5?

What exactly do the government guidelines say about retailers?

Shoppers in Dublin last week before the Level 5 restrictions came into force
Shoppers in Dublin last week before the Level 5 restrictions came into force
Image: Sasko Lazarov

UNDER LEVEL 5 restrictions, which came into force earlier this week, all non-essential retailers are required to close their doors to customers.

For shoppers, that means no browsing or trying on items for size for the next six weeks. 

So retail therapy is out for the moment and yet you may have heard that your friends or relatives who work in certain non-essential retailers — clothes shops, book shops or department stores, for example — are still being asked to come into work.

If you’re wondering if that’s allowed under the current rules, let’s have a look at the situation and what the guidelines have to say.

What do the rules say?

Released on Monday evening, the government’s list of essential retailers is available here.

In plain language, it sets out which shops can remain open to customers during the six-week period of restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Understandably, it includes shops selling health, medical or orthopaedic goods; fuel service stations and heating fuel providers; pharmacies, chemists, retailers or wholesalers providing pharmaceuticals; and outlets selling essential items for the health and welfare of animals.

Obviously, supermarkets and outlets selling food and beverages on a takeaway basis are also listed.

Wholesalers, hardware shops and builders’ merchants can also remain open to customers given that construction activity can continue in Level 5.

Clothes shops, booksellers, garden centres, music shops and department stores did not make the list, however.

What else does it say?

Well, there is one difference between this list and the one published by the government in March ahead of the spring lockdown.

Listed among the likes of “retail outlet that operates an online or other remote system of ordering goods for purposes of collection”.

It means that clothes shops, bookshops or any other ‘non-essential retailer’ that offers home delivery, ‘click’ or ‘phone-and-collect’ service can, according to the guidelines, continue to operate.

Customers won’t be allowed into the shop to browse around but they can show up at the to collect their items.

Crucially, the staff can also be asked to show up for work as normal.

Earlier this week, Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English TD, confirmed the new arrangement.

A statement from his department also confirmed that order and collection from non-essential retailers “can take place within the 5km limit”.

Is it much different to the March lockdown?

Yes and no.

The March guidelines for essential retailers “encouraged” all shops to provide online services “where that is possible”. This, the document said, should be done to “minimise footfall”.

Apart from that, there was very little detail.

Confusion abounded about whether that meant that non-essential retailers could continue to operate online.

A few weeks into lockdown, lobby group Retail Excellence Ireland clarified the situation after receiving a response to its queries from the Department of Business.

The Department confirmed that non-essential retailers could, in fact, continue to offer delivery services online.

This could only be done under certain conditions; the associated administration and processing activities had to be “home-based”; the business must have only a “minimum” number of staff on-site and physical distancing had to be “rigorously adhered to”.

But there was no mention of shops that offer ‘click or phone and collect’ services.

So what does it all mean?

On paper, it means that a much wider range of retail outlets can continue to operate, albeit without allowing customers to wander around the shops.

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Click or phone and collect is a lot cheaper for businesses to adopt than home delivery, which should allow more of them to adopt it if they haven’t already.

“I would encourage retailers to adopt remote ordering systems, such as click and deliver, click and collect, or to take phone orders where possible, to ensure that they can keep operating and continue to work safely, while customers can continue to shop locally with them,” said Damien English earlier this week.

Most of the major players have already done it and are committing to keeping the service open during Level 5.

Smyths Toys are operating home delivery and click and collect services throughout the next six weeks as is IKEA.

Dublin bookseller Hodges Figgis, owned by UK-anchored Waterstones, is doing the same.

Brown Thomas and Arnotts, the two premiere Dublin department stores, are also staying open for collections.

A spokesperson for the Selfridges-owned department stores confirmed in a statement to TheJournal.ie that they will remain open to facilitate click and collect and home delivery services.

In line with the government’s current Level 5 guidelines, some Brown Thomas [and] Arnott’s team members continue to work safely from our stores, in our distribution centre and from home to support our online, click and collect and home delivery services,” the spokesperson said.

“As always, the safety of our teams is our top priority and we will continue to follow all the recommendations from the government and relevant health authorities.”

Like Brown Thomas and Arnott’s, most businesses that plan to stay open won’t be operating with a full complement of staff. Many will have reduced the number of employees on the premises at any one time. 

And of course, any business that remains open must strictly adhere to the health and safety guidelines published in the ‘Return to Work’ protocols.

That means physical distancing has to be ensured between staff members and also between staff and customers who are collecting their items.

It means that logs have to be kept for the purposes of contact tracing in the event of an outbreak and that workspaces and surfaces have to be cleaned regularly.

Businesses that remain open can be inspected by the Health and Safety Authority, which can then issue prohibition or improvement notices if breaches are detected.

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