The question on (nearly) everyone’s lips is - how will you spend yours?
A luxury winter coat from a boutique whose prices are normally beyond reach? A new sofa or carpet, or a spring wardrobe for the kids, or perhaps a subscription for a weekly sourdough loaf from your hip neighbourhood bakery?
The giveaway in the form of a pre-paid card to each household in Northern Ireland for spending in local shops in the new year was the glad tidings we’d all been waiting for.
But there are many details to be ironed out. And for many households, spending it on fripperies like sourdough or sofas won’t be an option. You might need to bulk-buy nappies or formula milk - being in a position to covet luxuries when even the necessities are beyond reach, is itself a luxury.
The Finance Minister Conor Murphy pulled the £95m high street stimulus scheme out of his hat yesterday, indicating that he thought it would mean a £200 spend to each household.
However, today the Department for the Economy has held a briefing indicating that the scheme will pay out on a per person basis rather than a per household. It’s hoping that the amount per person will be between £75 and £100 though to achieve that for its targeted population of 1.1 million, the scheme will need to be topped up beyond its £95m ceiling.
That a flagship, attention-grabbing policy could be announced without the detail of how much it would bring per person or per household is remarkable and indicates just how immense the pressure is on government to come up with inventive schemes to keep our economy afloat.
The timing may also be a bit clumsy as there is concern about the Covid-19 transmission risk posed by large queues in our city and town centres as people squeeze in Christmas shopping before lockdown on Friday.
Of course, the new scheme isn’t to be implemented until the new year and then will be subject to public health guidance but we’re all easily influenced and might interpret a policy to encourage high street shopping in the future as licence to rush out and spend in the here and now.
But in today’s briefing, the department has said the weekend’s scenes of busy Christmas shopping won’t be repeated in January to March when shops are so much quieter.
The contrasting messages from ministers reminds us that while they can show the creativity to dream up the schemes, ultimately it will be the civil servants in the Department for the Economy who must expend the blood, sweat and tears on working out the detail.
A spokesman for the department had told us yesterday that “a scheme of this scale and nature is incredibly complex and officials are working hard to develop its parameters”.
Rather them than me.
Economists are divided on whether the scheme will be worth the effort. One has argued that a decision to use the £75 to £100 to put towards a mobile phone will ultimately enrich Apple or Huawei, and that people will use the money to simply buy stuff they were going to pay for with their own money anyway.
But there’s another school of thought that some of the money could remain unspent on the cards, and that in many cases, it will be used as a contribution towards a much bigger spend such as a new suite of furniture or that lovely designer coat.
That journey into the town centre to spend your card could mean you buy a bus ticket for an otherwise empty bus, that you fill up on petrol at a petrol station which hasn’t seen much business lately, and that you pay for lunch at a cafe which also desperately needs the trade. All money flowing into businesses that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
There had been some burning questions about how the scheme will work. Some have now been answered. The department has said it will apply to all retailers, whether locally-owned or nationally. And high-street is regarded as a catch-all phrase for bricks and mortar retail so that the sums can be spent in out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres.
So we’re not seeing a really bold policy aimed just at high streets but instead a broader policy to bring economic stimulus through retail.
The department isn’t imposing any restrictions on where you can spend the money, so you can head to Tesco to use the money for your normal shopping if you like, or you can spend it in the locally-owned convenience retailers like Spar.
Arguably it is fairer that all retailers can benefit as the presence of the UK multiples like Next does bring a footfall benefit for smaller independents.
This scheme will be a nightmare to plan and hellish to implement. Worth it? Not sure, but in these crazy times, it’s worth trying.