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Coronavirus: As shoppers buy rugs, deck chairs and fake flowers, we ask - what happened to essential items only?


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People queue outside The Range in east Belfast

People queue outside The Range in east Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

A B&M store

A B&M store

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

A customer leaves B&Q

A customer leaves B&Q

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly

Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

People queue outside The Range in east Belfast

Ever so slowly they came trundling out of the store, their trolleys so heavily laden that the contents started spilling out.

At the head of that queue - and at least two metres away - I stood patiently, wondering if the definition of 'essential' had suddenly changed.

It's hard to imagine fake flowers, extravagant lamps, large wall pictures and rugs being "completely necessary" or "extremely important", which is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'essential'.

I could, however, just about understand their acquirement of pillows, duvets, bedding and various other bedroom paraphernalia.

This intrepid mother and daughter had clearly made the most of their allocated but not enforced 15 minutes of retail time. So many businesses have suffered immeasurably since the Covid-19 crisis began, but The Range, a cornerstone of east Belfast's Connswater shopping centre, isn't one of them.

Despite the so-called lockdown, and in spite of the Government's persistent calls for people to stay at home unless they need to buy essential items, there is always an all-day-long line of eager customers waiting to gain entry to a store that stocks a vast array of home and garden goods, pet products and, for good measure, also houses an Iceland frozen foods concession.

Indeed, arriving at a retail premises that doesn't have a queue in these troubled times is akin to finding the Holy Grail.

When I got to The Range at 9.25am on Wednesday, there were 11 people ahead of me, with countless others having already been admitted. Despite tape markers on the tarmac every two metres en route to the large store's entrance/exit door, two men in front of me were clearly not observing social distancing rules and had positioned themselves virtually beside the guy directly ahead of them. Only one woman in the queue was wearing a face mask.

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A B&M store

A B&M store

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

A B&M store

Several signs inform the waiting patrons that there's an NHS fast track system in place which allows health workers immediate access to the front of the queue.

This was exemplified shortly before the runaway trolley episode when a woman darted across the car park, flashed a pass in my direction, muttered the words, "I'm sorry, I hate doing this" and gave me a Princess Diana sideways grin before walking directly in after speaking briefly to the employee guarding the door.

You could hardly describe the early morning queue at The Range as fast-moving. The doormen use walkie-talkies to let colleagues know when to usher in the next batch of allegedly essential-item shoppers

It then emerged (courtesy of an audible conversation between two doormen) that, although the lady in question was a key worker of an unspecified profession, she wasn't in fact NHS and should, therefore, have taken her place in the queue with the rest of us. Instead, her illegal entry extended my waiting time, already running to half an hour, by another five minutes.

You could hardly describe the early morning queue at The Range as fast-moving. The doormen use walkie-talkies to let colleagues know when to usher in the next batch of allegedly essential-item shoppers.

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A customer leaves B&Q

A customer leaves B&Q

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

A customer leaves B&Q

As I shuffled closer to the entrance of this Mecca, I witnessed one woman struggle across the car park bearing an item of heavy furniture, while a man emerged with a microwave oven tucked under his arm. Another man had helped himself to a barbecue, a large bag of wallpaper rolls and several tins of paint.

Outside, there were signs aimed at managing the unrealistic expectations of some of those in line: "We're sold out of all hot tubs, sorry."

Two girls behind me got far too close for comfort, so it was ironic that one was wearing a pair of blue protective gloves.

At one point the other brushed against my arm as she came up beside me to put some rubbish in a bin. After I finally got in and wiped down my basket - many shops are providing spray and kitchen roll type paper at their entry points - a woman's voice boomed over the Tannoy, informing customers they should only buy essential items and warning them that anyone who spends more than 15 minutes in the store would be asked to leave.

There were two problems with that. Firstly, if you don't cordon off the aisles, people are going to browse.

Secondly, if you've spent a long time queuing to get in, you're going to make the most of it.

Over at nearby B&M at 10.25am, there were 20 folk in front of me. It was windy and cold by then and quite unpleasant, which explains why a line which usually snakes at least 200m around the car park was more reminiscent of a wriggly worm.

Near the entrance, where one man exited with four deck chairs, a sign informed us that the popular retailer, echoing The Range, currently has 'no hot tubs or trampolines'

That queue was moving swiftly, but social distancing was clearly a very distant cousin to some. The man in front of me was less than half a metre away from the guy ahead of him, while the man behind me was far, far too close. Only one person was wearing a mask and gloves.

Near the entrance, where one man exited with four deck chairs, a sign informed us that the popular retailer, echoing The Range, currently has "no hot tubs or trampolines".

I was only in the market for cat food.

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Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly

Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly

Last stop, B&Q at Holywood Exchange, which only reopened earlier this week. There I faced the worst queue of the morning, with more than 40 people ahead of me.

Again, only one woman, who happened to be directly behind me, was wearing a face mask. Customer notices reminded people of social distancing, but at B&Q the tape markers on the ground were used to good effect.

An employee manning the door told one customer who danced out of the store with a portable spa that she was lucky to get one because "they're going like hot cakes".

There was disappointment, however, for another customer who tried to bring back some paint only to be told that they aren't taking returns "until this crisis is over".

For someone who used to enjoy shopping, yesterday's experience was both stressful and bizarre, not to mention a revelation as to what some people regard as 'essential'.

But three hours and three shops later, one thing was certain: we may not yet know how long the lockdown will last, but we can be fairly sure the toilet roll-buying pandemic that signalled the start of this crisis is over. I didn't see a single person buy any.

Belfast Telegraph