Lockdown in UK and France, Take 2: Are books and toys “non-essential”?

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Tenerife, Spain; and London, England
There they were, wedged between the chocolate chips and the chocolate chips: a set of candles. Niamh O’Brien knew they weren’t vital to her boyfriend’s birthday celebration that night, but they were only inches away. Unfortunately, a strip of red and white tape prevented her from going down the aisle of the supermarket; a sheet of plastic draped over the shelves.

With candles seen as a non-essential part of France’s second lockdown, Ms O’Brien had a choice: to forgo the tradition this year or to hide under the ribbon and grab them.

“I asked the seller if I could get the candles and he said no so I asked if he could take them for me but he said he was not allowed,” Ms. O said. ‘Brien, who was shopping in an E.Leclerc Supermarket in Toulouse. “So I slipped under the barrier, lifted the plastic and took them. I also grabbed a birthday banner.

As France eases restrictions put in place to tackle the second wave of the pandemic, the government has had the difficult task of establishing rules the public could obey, without immobilizing the economy. Last spring, residents were limited to one hour outside their homes for whatever reason. But with “COVID fatigue” rampant, European governments have taken a softer approach to restrictions. In November, schools, transport and public services remained open in France.

In parts of the UK and France, governments have created lists of essentials, forcing small businesses selling products like clothes, books and toys to temporarily close and large chains to block certain items. to buyers. The idea is to minimize people’s close contact with others and keep residents at home.

But many buyers and store owners said the decision to close some establishments was misguided and unfairly targeted culture, entertainment and personal care. There are also concerns that shoppers are increasingly turning to online platforms or suburban chain stores, a possible long-term consequence for consumption patterns long after lockdowns are lifted.

“The government says that if we open bookstores we will have to open hair salons, florists, etc., or if people respect the lockdown, we can get our small businesses back,” says Pierre Dutilleul, managing director of publishers French. Association, SNE. “It is incomprehensible and absurd. When you can’t explain a decision, it probably means it’s not a good decision. “

OK, what if we did it like that?

The debate over essentials exploded in France at the end of October, when the government announced that independent bookstores would have to close their doors while big chains and superstores – many of which sell books – were allowed to remain open.

Booksellers have called this a blatant injustice, and the government has finally decided that supermarkets and general stores should block non-essential items – not only books but also toys, clothes and games – from November 3. .

Gardening stores “are inspired by the psyche of the British public,” says Peter Hulatt, managing director of Camden Garden Center in London. “When the economy is tough, everyone goes into nesting mode. … It’s about making your place of life a better place to live. Locked out, it’s enlarged 10 times. “

A similar phenomenon in Wales saw supermarkets register non-essential items during a brief two-week ‘firewall’ or ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, ending on November 9. “It’s a simple matter of fairness,” Prime Minister Mark Drakeford said at the end of October. “We are in the same boat in Wales.”

But such attempts to appease small business owners have seemed like little favors to many, who say the decision to close their stores seems arbitrary and contradictory, given everything they’ve learned about social distancing and l hygiene after the first locking.

“People can congregate in department stores without anyone watching them, when we could easily let one or two customers in at a time,” says Christine Durietz, director of Dragon Savant, a children’s book and toy store. children in the east of Paris. . “At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of each individual. But I feel like we have been unfairly reprimanded.

That’s the general sentiment of garden shop owners in England, who were placed on the list of non-essential businesses during the country’s spring lockdown. When hardware stores – selling gardening products alongside building supplies – were allowed to remain open, it caused “great unrest in the garden industry,” says Peter Hulatt, managing director of Camden Garden Center in London .

Most gardening store purchases take place outdoors, making it safer and easier to implement social distancing among customers. And, like bookstores in France, nurseries are considered sacred to British life; gardening, a British obsession.

The tradition of home gardens dates back to the 1700s and only gained strength during the pandemic. Houseplant sales have skyrocketed among apartment dwellers, and garden stores have been a lifeline for those seeking community, acting as “a place of solace and meeting,” says Lawrence Tynan , employee of the Camden Garden Center.

The gardening industry was finally successful in convincing the government to add its stores to the list of “essentials” for the country’s second lockdown, from November 5 to December 2. Garden stores “exploit the psyche of the British public,” says Hulatt. “When the economy is tough, everyone goes into nesting mode. … It’s about making your place of life a better place to live. Locked out, it’s enlarged 10 times. “

An eye on the holidays

While the UK on Tuesday recorded a total of COVID-19 deaths which was the highest since early May, the rate of new cases is dropping. All non-essential businesses in the UK, including gyms and personal care services, will be allowed to open next week, as Christmas approaches.

And on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the worst of Wave 2 was over and announced that non-essential businesses could reopen on November 28 under strict health protocols. But independent traders did not wait for news of the end of restrictions to revive sales.

Growing numbers from both sides of the chain have joined the Click and Collect system, where consumers can purchase items online and pick them up in store. It is an alternative to online platforms like Amazon, which, according to the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, would be “the death of our bookstores and neighborhood life”. In mid-November, Amazon had agreed to postpone Black Friday sales to December 4, in the hopes that non-essential businesses would be allowed to open by then.

But Click and Collect is not a panacea for the concerns of independent traders. According to CPME, a union representing small and medium-sized French companies, only 15% of very small businesses sell their products via online platforms, even though 82% of French people buy online.

And some French companies are already dropping Click and Collect, as the costs of employing more staff to meet the demand for online orders have resulted in more losses than gains.

“We’ll hit 20% of our average monthly sales in November,” says Ms. Durietz of Dragon Savant, “if we’re lucky.”

Even as France lifts restrictions on non-essential items, some customers may have already changed their shopping habits.

“If it takes two days to receive a book that we ordered online, or if all the local stores are closed and we have to drive 40 minutes to get to the supermarket, we will buy everything we need. [there], including books ”, explains Mr. Dutilleul of SNE. “People will get used to it and in the future start shopping that way.”

Small business owners across Europe are banking on consumers’ love of tradition to help them through this difficult time. In France, booksellers will rely on the constant desire for real books, in a country where the penetration of e-book users is only expected to reach 8.6% in 2020.

“Even if we cannot say that all French people are interested in culture, there is certainly a great literary tradition in France and a love for real books”, explains Bruno Péquignot, professor emeritus of sociology who studies culture at the University of Paris. Sorbonne Nouvelle. “People will never put books in the trash; always nearby, in case someone wants to take them. It is a form of respect.

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