Empty shelves... what empty shelves? There were very few of them in Belfast’s biggest supermarkets yesterday, despite warnings of food shortages caused by the new year double whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit-era teething problems.
The panic buying that epitomised the first Covid-19 lockdown was conspicuous by its absence too yesterday — as were the long queues we’d grown accustomed to seeing last year.
Compliance with face-mask usage was very high, though, as was hand sanitisation — and it needed to be with supermarket ‘wardens’ having a more obvious presence to ensure the rules/guidelines/laws are followed.
Observance has been ramped up as well: one man I saw was told, in no uncertain terms: “If you touch that newspaper, sir, you’re buying it.”
At least papers still constitute ‘essential’ items, but the number of ‘non-essential’ ones filling up the trolleys was staggering.
It’s clear that the major supermarkets, which remain open because they supply food, are raking it in with regard to other items such as hardware, homeware and clothes — while local traders who’ve had their shutters down since Boxing Day can only only look on in a mixture of disgust and bemusement.
It’s a similar story in the likes of The Range, allowed to stay open courtesy of its Iceland concession — which remains eerily quiet while the rest of the store is thronged with shoppers more interested in lamp shades and picture frames than frozen food and fresh vegetables. Yes, not everyone is losing out in the pandemic, including offsales which have seen new records set.
As a result of the lockdown of the hospitality sector, shoppers here spent an extra £98.2m on alcohol in the run up to Christmas, according to new research from Kantar.
Meanwhile, the value of grocery sales also accelerated in the 12 weeks leading up to Christmas, with spending hitting £917.3m — 14.8% higher than the £799.2m spent in 2019.
The Belfast Telegraph visited 10 stores in Belfast and beyond to see the dual effects of Brexit and Covid regulations on shopping, including M&S, Lidl, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda.
While there were some empty shelves, there certainly weren’t enough product shortages to give the impression that stocks were running particularly low, or that we’re in the midst of a retail crisis.
Yesterday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that “in terms of the flow of fresh produce, we’re told that that’s now probably back to about 95% of normal trade so at least that’s something, so people aren’t worrying about food being on the shelves”.
Regardless, there were earlier problems, and the chief executives of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Iceland, Co-Op and Marks & Spencer have written to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove calling for “urgent intervention” to prevent more disruption.
And DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson will lay an urgent oral question in the Commons today.
Ironically, it was only in Belfast city centre that it felt like we were in a true lockdown; few cars, fewer people and ever fewer open shops. Travel to the outskirts or further afield, however, and you’ll find that shops are so busy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that no one’s even heard the phrase ‘Stay at Home’.
Not only that, but increased mask wearing has, conversely, affected almost all the other Covid-safe policies, especially social distancing. In one supermarket, I found myself penned into a corner by another shopper’s trolley as she too swooped on the same products.
This all comes as Stormont reconsiders allowing the sale of non essential goods alongside essential items. That’s been one of the biggest bones of contention during lockdown; shoe shops, for example, are closed but big supermarkets are free to sell as much footwear as they please.
That prompted the Federation of Small Businesses to call for the click and collect service to be reinstated in Northern Ireland.
Tesco and Asda have become the latest supermarkets to say that shoppers who do not wear masks will not be allowed in, unless they are medically exempt.
It follows similar action taken by Sainsbury’s, who said they would “be introducing security guards at the front of stores to challenge people who are not wearing a mask or who are shopping in groups”.
Meanwhile, Tesco said the action was being taken “to protect our customers and colleagues”, adding it would have “additional security in stores to help manage this”. Customers are being asked to shop alone, unless they are a carer or with children.
Confirming what I saw in store, Asda vowed to continue to offer customers a free face covering if they forget to bring one. But it said if customers refuse to wear a covering without a valid medical reason, or are in “any way challenging to our colleagues about doing so”, they will be refused entry.