The pandemic may present an opportunity for retailers to take the politicians to task, writes Fintan Moore

The attitude of official Ireland to retailers seems to be perpetually dismissive, and the roots of that sentiment probably stem back to the study of the history of the early 1900s, in which the merchants of Dublin are seen as opposed to the feeling of rebellion. Every generation of schoolchild has grown up reading the WB Yeats poem September 1913, with its withering lines: “What need you being come to sense, but fumble in a greasy till, and add the half-pence to the pence?”, so it’s a pretty safe bet that a whole political class had more regard for the perceived romance of revolutionaries than they did for any form of shopkeeper. 

Moving forward a century to the present day, we’re now mired in a war against a virus rather than against a fading colonial empire, and among the people putting their necks on the line are the country’s overlooked and disrespected retailers. When the crap hit the fan, whole swathes of the ‘workforce’ were able to dive for the duvet, while the likes of us in pharmacies and supermarkets were left taking our chances. 

 So when the current bedlam settles down enough for everyone who works across a counter from the public to draw breath and do some thinking, it’s time that we all unite to put the establishment against a metaphorical wall with a metaphorical gun stuck in their eyeball and give them a list of real changes that we want to see. 

For years, retailers have asked successive governments to ‘do something’ about insurance costs but the politicians have fudged and waffled, with no concrete action. So every umbrella body representing pharmacies, supermarkets, off-licenses and any other kind of retailer should sit down together en bloc and draw up a clearly-defined list for politicians, stating exactly what the ‘something’ we want is, especially legal changes, up to and including constitutional changes, if needed. For example, huge awards for personal injury claims when the claimant has had minimal suffering with no long-term harm need to be abolished. Politicians supporting the changes can be supported in turn by the retail bloc.

Now that the politicians have realised what sectors really matter when it comes to keeping society functioning, it’s time for them to know what we want to keep on doing it

There’s no reason to stop with insurance. Retailers are more likely to be victims of crime than almost any other worker, so any changes that improve that situation should be included also. Shoplifting has almost been decriminalised, given how reluctant the justice system is to pursue it, yet paradoxically, huge compensation pay-outs can result if a retailer wrongfully accuses someone of shoplifting. A kid accidentally accused of stealing a bar of chocolate can sue for tens of thousands of euro. The law should cap the maximum award in all such cases at a couple of hundred euro, unless there has been grossly deliberate defamatory behaviour by the retailer.

There should be a State-run compensation fund set up for all victims of crime, funded by fining every class of criminal, like a large-scale version of paying into the traditional court ‘poor-box.’ If anyone convicted of a crime is unable to pay a lump-sum, then the Revenue Commissioners or Social Welfare department should be allowed to deduct a weekly amount at source. The resulting fund could then be used to give something back to victims who have suffered a financial loss from crime. This is obviously a wider measure to benefit all of society, not just retailers, but it’s something that should be pushed for.

Now that the politicians have realised what sectors really matter when it comes to keeping society functioning, it’s time for them to know what we want to keep on doing it.

Upsides Down the Line

The pandemic has been providing statisticians with a phenomenal amount of opportunities to crunch data. A quick search online can show you a breakdown of Covid-19 cases by country, age, sex or ethnicity, and any variation of those parameters. What will be interesting in the next period of time will be the effect of the movement restrictions and other measures like hand-sanitising on conditions other than the coronavirus. The obvious contagious illness that people think of is influenza, but there are many others. For instance, given that schools have been closed for three months, with minimal contact between primary-school age children of different households, the level of head-lice infections must be at a historic low. The year-on-year sales data for Lyclear should tell a tale. Various other childhood illnesses like ‘Hand, Foot and Mouth’ must be reduced also, and the outbreak of mumps circulating in South Dublin for the last year might finally be under control. In theory, norovirus outbreaks should be reduced in hospitals and other institutions due to improved hygiene and fewer visitors. I’m sure there are people collating the numbers already.

Screen Genie

As in many pharmacies across the country, we now have Perspex screens up at the counter, and I am still constantly surprised at what people will do to avoid speaking through them. Each screen is about 60cm wide, and I initially bought two of them, but people kept side-stepping to talk over the parts of the counter with no screen. I then bought two more, so that people would have to be facing a screen, or so I thought. The only gaps in the Perspex wall were a six-inch sliver at one end, which some people will try to poke their head through; and at the till, where a lot of them now stand preferentially. I’ve ordered a fifth sheet of Perspex to put up at the till, but I’ve given up on the sliver — if anybody pokes their head in there, then it’s our turn to side-step.

I’ve also become more conscious of what people do with their hands, which at times is remarkable. One guy was handing in a prescription to me through the slot in the bottom of the Perspex screen, which is about 10cmx15cm. He passed the prescription in, but held onto it while talking, then put his other hand through to hold it with both hands, then slid both of his forearms through the slot while resting his elbows on the base of it, all the time oblivious of what he was doing, despite multiple signs about the place, until I said “Jimmy — you know you’re not meant to touch the counter…?”

What I am really tempted to buy are the plastic spikes people put on window sills to stop pigeons crapping on them, and put a row of them along the counter-top. Desperate times call for extreme measures. It’s either that or an electrified wire.

<strong>Fintan Moore</strong>
Fintan Moore

Fintan Moore graduated as a pharmacist in 1990 from TCD and currently runs a pharmacy in Clondalkin.