Essential vs Non-Essential Retailing

At the start of lockdown in March, there was a division of retailing into essential and non-essential retailing, with a secondary division into physical and online channels.  There was some grumbling from some retailers (Sports Direct, Waterstones) who felt they were essential even though the government decided otherwise, but this quickly subsided.  During this first UK lockdown there was a strong sense of solidarity and adherence and this retail distinction was not so much of an issue (except commercially of course for those retailers forced to close).  More concern initially seemed to be raised around how to make online operate safely.

Moving forward to the exit from lockdown, questions were raised over the timing and what stores could open when.  But again things seemed to be accepted and managed and things moved to a new normal over the summer.

This rough consensus though seems to have broken down in the recent and current local, national and other levels and tiers of lockdown.  This has not been helped by a sense of lateness and confusion in producing guidelines for the English lockdown (as covered by Nelson Blackley), and by the imposition, removal and re-imposition of restrictions in Northern Ireland.  In Scotland the local authority boundaries and dfferent tiers mean someone from Livingston should not be shopping in Falkirk, but how would anyone know? These complications were most clearly seen in the initial commentary on the Welsh ‘firebreak’ which saw parts of stores sealed off and a degree of uncertainty over what could and could not be sold by whom.  Whilst some of this could be best described as political mischief as it disappeared when England followed Wales, it does raise the temperature about the nature of ‘essential’ when it comes to retailing.

Most recently, the debate has been joined by independent and small retailers who feel really aggrieved that they have to shut when larger multiple retailers are open and can sell the very products these smaller retailers do, on the basis they are ancillary to the main product range.  This seems unfair, and all the more so when retailers like The Range use their limited food range as the cover to stay open and sell everything.

I’m not going to step into the issue of the rights or wrong of lockdowns and what should or shouldn’t be open, nor the impact on businesses and the adequacy or otherwise of government funding for furlough and closure.  I’m no epidemiologist, but I know people who’ve lost family to Covid and I have a relative suffering through long Covid, so tend to get short-tempered with some views.  These are very difficult decisions to weigh. But I am interested in this distinction of essential versus non-essential.

The problem is the lack of certainty to it.  Why is alcohol essential but baby clothes not (this did get changed)?  As we move rapidly to embrace online, why is a computer store non-essential? One person’s essential is another’s irrelevancy.  What is looks like to one person is very different to another and there is confusion over where the boundaries are – a mezzanine has to shut but the same products in a main aisle can be sold. 

If you accept the public health goal of restricting associations and inter-mingling then there has to be some restrictions on what can be open and when. Sectors can argue about whether the virus is present in their sector and the precautions that businesses are taking, but as Jason Leitch (Scotland’s National Clinical Director) all these sectors can’t be right as the number of cases and deaths continues to increase. The alternative of letting everything stay open, even with precautions, does not seem credible.

So how else could you achieve the public health goal? Product classifications also have limitations and miss the science point behind lockdowns, which as far as I understand it, is about the type of mingling and enclosed spaces.  Yet is there that much difference between a sub-post office and a small florist in that regard, especially if the retailers have invested in PPE and approaches to managing customer and staff safety?  One though is open and the other is not. The debate seems to be between shut or open with little in between.

I don’t have a ready answer to the conundrum. There is a lingering sense of sense of unfairness that independent retailers feel about those exploiting loopholes.  Perhaps a direct listing of specific multiple retailers allowed to open might have helped? And a recognition that non-essential retailers should perhaps not have received the rates relief in the first instance if they opened (and it is good to see essential retailers giving this back).   Maybe the key point is about business adherence to rules and restrictions and shutting down for a period those that are not compliant, as has happened in some places in hospitality? After all at one point we were meant to be all in this together and if you don’t adhere to the restrictions then there should be consequences (well except if you’re Dominic).

Shutting retailing (and other sectors) goes against the grain, so it is perhaps not suprising that we didn’t have a ready made solution and have to do the best we can and hope that the rules are followed and not pored over to exploit posisble loopholes. The hope now is that we can put such restrictions increasingly behind us and get rid of this artificial distinction. But just in case, anyone got any better ideas of how to do a partial retail lockdown?

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Alcohol, Closure, Essential Retailing, Government, Independents, Lockdown, Non-Essential Retailing, Non-food retailing, Online Retailing, Regulation, Scottish Government, Uncategorized, Wales and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Essential vs Non-Essential Retailing

  1. A thoughtful blog post as always Leigh. I think it will be virtually impossible to get a comprehensive and universally agreed classification/distinction between essential and non-essential retail – because as you point out it’s very subjective. As I understand it, the concern around baby clothing was not that you couldn’t buy them during lockdown (as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda etc have a limited range) but the inability of first time parents for example, to get the specialist advice and product knowledge available from baby goods retailers, whether Independents or larger chain such as Mamas and Papas and JoJo Mamam Bebe?
    I don’t think classifying food, or pharmacy as essential is controversial but beyond that it gets very messy – and confusing for both retailers and consumers! I love visiting Garden Centres but the rationale for them remaining open during November’s lockdown in England (and selling Christmas decorations etc) is questionable in my opinion (and if I owned a gift shop on the High Street for example, would be very unhappy)
    It might be useful if retail organisations such as BRC, BIRA etc. could lead the debate and look to lobby politicians about the more controversial aspects of the current ‘rules’ so that ideally if and when there are any other lockdowns hopefully things would be slightly less controversal and more equitable.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    Thanks Nelson, As you say it is confusing and Garden Centres in November is a good example. The disappointment perhaps is that 9 months on, we have not had that debate.

  3. Absolutely Leigh! Like with so many other aspects of the management/control of COVID-19 the authorities and government haven’t really used the various ‘lockdown’ periods to learn lessons and so be better prepared and informed for future decisions. It’s all just fire-fighting which is rather disappointing to be honest. Whilst accepting this is an unprecedented event, which has stretched existing resources, it is worrying that there are such limited forward or recovery plans (at least as far as I am aware)

  4. Pingback: Goodbye 2020 – Hello 2021 and beyond | Stirlingretail

  5. Pingback: Woudhuysen Retailers have become an arm of the nanny state

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