Bars, hotels, restaurants and everyone in the hospitality industry find themselves in the eye of the Covid storm again as they face new restrictions.
ne group breathing a collective sigh of relief in all of this is retailers. With just a few shopping weeks to Christmas, so-called non-essential shops are looking all the more essential for people who want some retail therapy after another torrid year living with Covid.
Thankfully, it doesn’t look like they will have to close again.
However, not all shops are in the same boat. After several lockdowns when they had to close their doors, online shopping leap-frogged about five years in a matter of 12 months. Online shopping is seen as the ultimate saviour for retailers if they can master it by developing websites and “selling to the world”.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The hospitality and leisure sector is now collectively being described as the “experience” economy. It’s a useful catch-all phrase, but in truth, retailers need to be in the experience business too or they won’t have a shop in a few years’ time.
Many of us had dabbled in the world of buying from the likes of Amazon before Covid – usually books, gadgets or toys for our kids. But forced restrictions led us down a new online path. I bought clothes for the first time online. I bought printer ink (which I probably should have been buying online all along).
Small shops in rural towns managed to get themselves online, if only to simply communicate with their customer base to retain them for when they reopen.
But now more than ever, retailers need to think about how going into their shop is an experience. This is especially true in city centres where shopping trips are often linked to going for lunch, catching a film in the cinema or some other hospitality experience.
As the hospitality sector gets knocked back again, the challenge is even greater for retailers in city centres to attract punters into town, never mind in their doors.
We all have wonderful memories of pre-Christmas shopping trips of the past. I remember being in Carrickmacross with my mother every Christmas Eve, as she always had the “last few bits to get”. The whole place was alive with shoppers, sellers, drinkers, chatterers, chancers, emigrants home for Christmas and the last few live turkeys being sold out of the back of trailers.
But so much has changed as shoppers opted for convenience over experience a long time ago. Retail parks on the edge of town, where it’s easy to find parking, trump a walk up the street for many people these days.
Some of our most beautiful shopping towns have been irreparably reshaped, not just by big business, but by local authorities and the community themselves who continue to choose convenience.
In bigger cities such as Dublin, the challenges are somewhat different.
It is about competing to attract people into the city, especially at a time when suburban shopping centres, Covid and online shopping pose a big threat.
There’s a growing debate about the future of our cities and the concept of a 15-minute city.
It’s all good stuff, but it isn’t clear exactly what part the city centre will play in this new re-drafting.
We have to do something about climate change and emissions from cars. This probably means congestion charges for driving into a city centre.
A survey conducted by the four Dublin local authorities concluded that Dubliners want motorists to be charged for driving polluting cars into the capital.
Whatever about how representative the survey was of the wider Dublin population, the issue appears to be heading in one direction. That’s not to say it’s the wrong thing to do, but getting to a more sustainable place in the future will require measures that will be very tough for retailers.
Of course, there are apparent exceptions to the massive movement toward online shopping. Traditional retail is hardly dead when you see an enormous Asian investment company make a multi-billion-pound bid to buy Selfridges Group in the UK, which also owns Brown Thomas and Arnotts.
We saw the queues outside Penneys stores when they reopened after the lockdowns, and the group continues to invest in new stores.
But these are exceptions. Brown Thomas and Arnotts have spent fortunes developing a shopping experience while also investing in their websites and online offering. Not everyone can afford to back two horses.
The very nature of in-store shopping has changed a lot. There are fewer smaller quirky stores, and they have found it difficult to compete on price because the bulk-buying power of major players undercuts them.
The old corner shops that sold everything from Silvermints to wallpaper are disappearing. Retail used to be a career, whereas nowadays staff are often very young, low-paid, part-time transient workers.
Have you ever gone into an outlet of a large and very successful DIY chain and struggled to find a member of staff at all, never mind one who knew much about what they were selling?
Smaller local toy shops have been trumped by bigger stores that lack the same personality, character and charm.
This isn’t just the fault of big business. They do what it says on the tin in providing a competitive service at a decent price – well, sometimes they do.
The challenge is there for retailers to enhance the shopping experience and be given a fighting chance of succeeding by local authorities with their policies from planning to rates.
As consumers, we get what we pay for. We have to be prepared to do some things differently. Seek out the experience. Shop local. Don’t be afraid to actually walk somewhere to take in the unique atmosphere of a special local place.