Eoghan Dalton Reports
With the festive season shopping now behind us, Waterford retailers have reported a year-on-year increase in footfall, citing Winterval’s ability to draw visitors and shoppers into the city centre as a major factor in the upsurge.
However, several businesses who spoke to The Munster Express observed that the Christmas Festival’s earlier start, combined with an earlier sales season did lead to something of a slowdown in trade in the days immediately prior to Christmas Day. Nonetheless, there’s no denying the improved mood in the city, said Waterford Chamber CEO, Gerald Hurley.
“The footfall and the individual purchases according to our members were up in the weeks leading up to Christmas – there’s considerably more confidence, people are willing to look forward and not look behind,” he said.
One example of the increasing confidence this newspaper was informed of involved postal workers receiving tips from households while on their last delivery round before Christmas Day.
While the St Stephen’s Day sales were a success for some of the larger stores, it might have proven a day too far for others.
Clothing store Next in Ardkeen saw queues of up to a hundred shoppers forming in the early hours of the morning, beginning at roughly 2.30am for a 6am opening. Elsewhere, some stores saw little activity until a flurry in the afternoon.
Some others, preferring not to be named, decided to close earlier than planned (most stores that open on Stephen’s Day are local branches reporting to a head office in the capital).
Clothing store River Island saw a quieter St Stephen’s than usual. However, it was “unusually” but welcomingly busy from late November on, according to management, coinciding with Winterval’s return to the city centre.
Penneys has often been a forerunner for sales season, though in Waterford this was only its fourth year opening on December 26th. The clothing store has seen an expanded floor space in recent times, with a staff totalling over 200 now to meet demand from customers. This festive period was no different with people continuing to flock to the store, said management.
One store that opens without fail on Stephen’s Day is Gamestop in City Square. This is less to do with sales and more to do with problems arising under the Christmas tree the day before, according to senior staffer, Francis Dwyer:
“There can be issues with consoles that customers need to get sorted out for their kids, so we’d be here to help with that.”
One infamous version of this in years past was Microsoft’s Xbox 360 displaying three red rings in its lights, quickly garnering the ‘Red Ring of Death’ moniker among frustrated gamers.
“It was busy, but probably not as busy as other years. I think it’s a sign of the times, a lot of people have moved to digital so they’re not going to be coming into the shop as much. We’ve taken that into account by offering toys and tee-shirts as well as the games. The gift cards have been massive for us actually,” said Mr Dwyer.
Other stores with extra room for shoppers and stock alike are JD Sports and Carraig Donn, both in City Square Shopping Centre. The former has enjoyed its first Christmas since taking over the lot previously occupied by a newsagent’s, with trade increasing year-on-year for the past three years.
Carraig Donn, meanwhile, is only at its new home a fortnight. Manager Maria McCarthy said it saw the most successful opening weekend in the company’s history, with gift cards in particular proving a boon for the homeware retailer.
Several stores decided to forgo the St Stephen’s sale. Catherine Kavanagh, manager at The Book Centre, said it’s an ideal time for all members of staff to take a break. While business was quieter than usual in the lead-in to Christmas, gift cards were “huge” for the bookseller, said Ms Kavanagh.
Golden Discs in City Square has never opened for the post-Christmas sale, unlike its branches in other parts of the country.
Management in Waterford told us: “The boss in Dublin rings up and asks if we want to open. I tell him it’s better to have it closed for the day and he’s always happy with that. Our business is done in the build-up to Christmas.”
Shaws Department Store on the Quay also doesn’t open on Stephen’s Day but is aiming to do so in future. A lack of staff is the main issue according to its manager, Willie Murphy.
With Penneys, while some staff are contracted to have time off at Christmas, newer employees work either Christmas Eve or St Stephen’s Day – but not both.
JD Sports gets around this by hiring in staff especially for Christmas, meaning they often have to work both Christmas Eve and Stephen’s Day.
Managers in stores suffering particularly slow Stephen’s Day trade wondered whether a simultaneous noon-opening might be worth pursuing, believing it could help satisfy overworked staff while also taking advantage of that afternoon flurry.
Una Dunphy, secretary of the Waterford Council of Trade Unions (and the local People Before Profit representative), said it was important that younger staff gain the rights of their older co-workers, observing it was a key part of a strike at Tesco last year.
“People enter employment and accept contracts without union advice, they generally only approach the union later with some difficulty,” said Ms Dunphy.
“How do we overcome this? People need to be better educated with regard to their rights as workers, especially when we are at an all-time low regarding the treatment of the young worker. Union reps need to be introduced to new workers ahead of contracts being issued – until this is normal practice the worker is on the back foot. No new employee will want to be looking for the union on commencement of their employment, but the practice needs to become embedded within workplaces to safeguard employees’ terms and conditions.”
Noting that she was raised in a family of nurses and hospitality staff, Ms Dunphy added: “Christmas dinner for many years was built around rosters and schedules to accommodate those working. The festive period is a two-week slow down needed for rest and reflection. Out with the old and in with the new. We have turned a dangerous corner if we feel that these holidays require us to dance to the tune of crazed capitalism. Retail workers don’t provide emergency services.”
Ms Dunphy also expressed concern about the impact bigger companies were having on the county at Christmastime.
“Competition has been wiped by larger stores and the local touch is gone. Toy shops have turned into warehouses, although Toymaster in Dungarvan does buck that trend, and the donut effect of out of town shopping has left the city skewed as a catch-all centre, and the homegrown, family businesses have been targeted by bigger entities. There are gains but there are also losses which are not always measured on the balance sheet.”