As Kiwi retail businesses prepare for lockdown after Wednesday, debate rages over what constitutes an ‘essential’ business.
When it was announced that New Zealand would go to Level 4 after midnight on Wednesday, the Government confirmed that “essential businesses and those that support them” would be permitted to remain open during the four-week lockdown. It initially specified “food, medicine, healthcare, energy, fuel, waste-removal, internet and financial support” providers, but the full list of essential businesses is available here.
Supermarkets will, of course, remain open. Smaller boutique supermarkets such as Commonsense Organics and GoodFor have expressed confidence that they’ll be allowed to remain open.
Natalie Davis, Countdown’s managing director, has repeated previous pleas for consumers to cease panic buying: “We repeat our earlier calls to please not panic, and to shop normally. There is no need to stock up and for every extra item you buy, someone else goes without. When customers stockpile and buy more than they need, it creates a bottleneck in the supply chain that takes time to work through and leaves gaps on the shelves. This isn’t fair for other New Zealanders and there’s no need – we will remain open as we always have and there will always be food.”
Unite Union today called for pizza shops, other takeaways and non-essential retailers to be told they need to close. Spokesperson Gerard Hehir described the ongoing operation of these businesses as “socially irresponsible, a danger to workers and undermines the lockdown.”
The Warehouse Group has also drawn condemnation after making an announcement to the sharemarket that its 92 The Warehouse stores would remain open during the country’s month of isolation. Its announcement positioned the Red Sheds as a provider of essentials.
“The Warehouse is a provider of key consumer goods essential for maintaining the wellbeing of people such as food and beverage, groceries, cleaning items, health and beauty items including toiletries, winter essentials e.g. blankets, clothing and heaters and stationery and office supplies for home schooling and work-from-home needs.”
The Warehouse Group said it would introduce new protocols in stores, additional cleaning and additional leave and wellbeing support to keep staff safe.
“We are working with New Zealand’s two major supermarkets to submit to government personal protection equipment requirements and supply for our people. Customers in store will be asked to adhere to new protocols including social distancing and limiting purchasing, in some cases, to two items per product.
“We will continue to evolve our protection protocols for our team members and we are well aware that as one of the largest New Zealand employers, with 12,000 employees, the Group’s ability to keep its Warehouse brand and Group fulfilment centres open, not only helps customers with key essentials but it goes some way to ensuring the sustainability of the business for communities, customers and stakeholders.”
More than 1200 people had signed a petition to “close The Warehouse” by 3pm on Tuesday.
The Government has not yet weighed in on this, but in a press conference, Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) chief executive Paul Stock told Stuff that companies should be careful about making announcements before receiving official confirmation.
“We expect New Zealanders, firms, businesses, and people to assist in the self isolation process, not to assume they are an essential service when they are not,” Stock said.
Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford has called for the Government to provide urgent clarity on what defines ‘essential retail’.
“In the Prime Minister’s press statement, she referred to supermarkets and the food supply chain being exempt from closure requirements. However, there is a much broader range of stores providing essential goods to New Zealanders. There is a range of speciality grocers, food stores and convenience stores that people may not class as supermarkets but which are nonetheless a key means of delivering food to New Zealanders. These stores should also be exempt from any closure requirements,” Harford said today.
A free 0800 number will be set up by the Government to answer businesses’ questions about eligibility.