What’s essential? While authorities struggle to define what people need, retailers are dying

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

That’s somewhat of a simplification, because like the minefield of trying to operate a retail business under alert level four, there were always exceptions.

TimeOut bookstore in Mount Eden could offer contact delivery under lockdown level 3 in April last year – not under alert level 4 this time.


TimeOut bookstore in Mount Eden could offer contact delivery under lockdown level 3 in April last year – not under alert level 4 this time.

Some of the Government’s classifications of what was considered an essential item seemed arbitrary to many retailers who were finding themselves under more and more pressure with each passing week.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said many retailers were hampered by the Government’s decisions around what is deemed essential and what was not.

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

“On that basis you could pretty much argue that anything’s essential.”

Harford said retailers’ sentiments towards lockdown were worsening as time went by.

“People are much less positive now than they were a month ago and there are businesses who are going to struggle to survive this.”

Retailers were also hammered by the uneven playing field in the market, he said.

“They’ve got competitors in the rest of the country and overseas that are able to sell anything into Auckland. Anyone in Auckland can buy anything they like, just not from a local retailer.”

The Government wouldn’t be drawn on the justifications on why some items were considered essential when other similar items weren’t.

Official advice on ‘Operating at Level 4’ on its business.govt.nz website said that government relied 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 for what types of business could operate under various alert levels were decided by the Minister for COVID-19 Response, in consultation with the Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Health.

There were a range of non-food items considered essential because they were intended to help people remain healthy and safe while isolating, work or study from home or stay in communication with whānau and friends and remain up to date with news and health information.

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

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

These included items that were “urgently required” such as:

  • Necessary clothing, footwear, and bedding, whiteware and appliances; cooking, cleaning, and laundry equipment; medicinal and hygiene products; transport maintenance items; materials for urgent home repair; communication devices such as mobile phones and computer equipment, televisions, and radios; educational materials and books; and home office equipment

Categories of non-essential items included:

  • Exercise, sporting and outdoor recreation equipment: such as weights, indoor training machines, sports rackets and balls, and pool products
  • Entertainment and hobby products: such as gaming consoles, knitting wool, trampolines and swings
  • Beauty products: such as make up

What stores can open?

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

Banks, credit unions, insurers and money transfer operators were allowed to open 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 have the items consumed onsite after ordering.

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

Off-licence holders could sell alcohol remotely through contactless delivery and certain licencing trusts can operate with a one-in one-out policy.

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

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

Shopping malls were not allowed to open.

Green grocers, butcheries, bakeries, fishmongers could not open but were allowed contactless delivery

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

Alert levels were due to be reviewed on Monday.

Official government advice on how businesses must operate under various alert levels available here and Retail NZ also had a handy guide here.

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