What is essential? As authorities struggle to define what people need, retailers are dying


You can buy alcohol in Auckland, but you can’t buy a book.

This is sort of a simplification, because like the minefield of trying to run a retail business below Alert Level four, there were always exceptions.

The TimeOut bookstore in Mount Eden may offer contact delivery below Lockdown Level 3 in April of last year - and not below Alert Level 4 this time around.

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The TimeOut bookstore in Mount Eden may offer contact delivery below Lockdown Level 3 in April of last year – and not below Alert Level 4 this time around.

Some of the government’s classifications of what was considered an essential item seemed arbitrary to many retailers who found themselves under increasing pressure every week.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said many retailers are hampered by government decisions about what is considered essential and what is not.

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He said that every product in a sense could be described as fulfilling a need.

“Based on that, you could pretty much say that everything is essential. “

Harford said retailers’ feelings towards the lockdown worsened over time.

“People are a lot less positive now than they were a month ago and there are companies that are going to struggle to survive this.”

Retailers have also been struck by the level playing field in the market, he said.

“They have competitors in the rest of the country and overseas who are able to sell anything in Auckland. Anyone in Auckland can buy whatever they want, but not from a local retailer. “

The government would not be attracted to justifications for which certain elements were considered essential while other similar elements were not.

The official “Operate at Level 4” advisory on its business.govt.nz website said the government was relying on businesses to determine which products were essential.

“We expect businesses and consumers to act responsibly.”

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment said the rules regarding the types of businesses that can operate under different alert levels have been decided by the COVID-19 Response Minister, in consultation with the Premier Minister, Minister of Justice and Minister of Health.

There was a range of non-food items considered essential as they were intended to help people stay healthy and safe while secluding themselves, working or studying from home or staying in communication with whānau and friends and staying on top of health news and information.

Of course, this could be interpreted to include a lot of things.

The health decree also provided a “non-exhaustive list” of products that are included in these categories.

These included items that were “urgent]such as:

  • Necessary clothing, footwear and bedding, household items and appliances; kitchen, cleaning and laundry equipment; medicines and hygiene products; transport maintenance articles; materials for urgent home repairs; communication devices such as cell phones and computer equipment, televisions and radios; educational materials and books; and home office equipment

Categories of non-essential items included:

  • Outdoor exercise, sports and leisure equipment: such as weights, indoor training equipment, sports rackets and balls and pool products
  • Entertainment and leisure products: such as game consoles, knitting yarn, trampolines and swings
  • Beauty products: like makeup

Which stores can open?

Farm supply stores and pet stores were not allowed to open but could offer contactless delivery.

Banks, credit unions, insurers and money transfer operators have been allowed to open up to customers for “critical services where remote access is not possible.”

Dairies could open and sell food and drink, but they were not allowed to prepare, package or consume the items on site after ordering.

For example, barista coffee could not be sold, but hot pies could be sold from a stove.

Unauthorized licensees could sell alcohol remotely through contactless delivery, and some license trusts may operate with a single policy.

Hardware and DIY stores could not sell to repeat customers, but were open to traders to maintain other Alert Level 4 businesses or services.

General retail stores and clothing stores were allowed to operate online to deliver only “essential” consumer products, but could not allow customers to their premises.

Shopping centers were not allowed to open.

Green grocery stores, butchers, bakeries, fishmongers could not open but were authorized to deliver without contact

Hairdressers, barbers, nail salons, tattoo parlors and non-medical massage services cannot open.

Alert levels were to be reviewed on Monday.

Official government advice on how businesses should operate under different alert levels available here and Retail NZ also had a how-to guide here.


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