In most Irish towns and cities these days it’s hard not to see shop after shop bearing the name of a large British or European chain, be it fashion, food or home wares. In some cases entire blocks are dominated by these giants and it makes you wonder how our retail landscape came to be so.
On one hand I love the availability of the merchandise, the choice of goods that these stores have brought to our shores and we can’t ignore the fact that they are also providing local employment opportunities and renting and buying commercial units. It is also worth remembering that some are also from a franchise model. Therefore although the original name over the door was a non Irish concept, as a franchise, it is almost as good as an indigenous business, but many boast parent companies residing in Britain, Spain, Germany and other parts of Europe. I was in a swanky, relatively new shopping centre near Dublin recently where only three stores in this massive modern church of retail therapy were Irish brands.
Although I enjoy the broad choice available, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed when I see two prices of different currencies on a label or swing tag and note that there is little correlation between the sterling cost and what seems like the excessive euro price we are being asked to pay. It has always been lamentable but with the euro gaining strength it is particularly vexing.
We tend to notice it more on the big ticket items such as clothes and furniture but it is rampant in the small stuff as well. Only last Sunday I noticed that on the banner of the ‘Irish Mail On Sunday’ there were two prices listed; €2.00 and then in brackets (£1.00NI). There was never a time when one sterling pound was worth two euro. A glossy magazine I picked up bore the printed price of £2.50 (sterling) while the newsagent had put a little price tag on the cover with €4.95.
The double pricing system wouldn’t be so annoying if you could choose to pay the sterling price, but of course you can’t. Last October I was in Gibraltar, the British Overseas territory that borders Spain. Everything there is priced with a euro and sterling amount and the shops will accept either currency. Try going into a British chain in Waterford and offering to pay the sterling price with sterling and see how you get on.
We are taking it all lying down. We don’t really complain except among ourselves and more often than not we don’t even stop to think, assuming that the retailer is on the customer’s side and, besides, we don’t have the time to be working out tricky maths in the middle of a shopping expedition. We have to stop with our excuses and take the time. There is the current cry of a global credit crunch and soaring food prices. These are facts, but in Ireland we are also being penalised further on imports and we should be asking how they are getting away with it.
Unless the euro takes a sudden nosedive, at present you can roughly add 25% (or a quarter) to the sterling price to get the euro conversion. This is not an Einstein equation and you do not have to be a mathematical wizard to work it out. Taking my example of the Irish Mail On Sunday (which I must point out is not the only culprit, but it happened to be the one I noticed most recently), if the sterling price noted was £1 then a rough calculation takes me to €1.25. Add on a little extra for the rough calculation and the transport and even €1.50 seems generous, but at €2.00 we seem to be way off the mark. Take an item of clothing or household goods with a tag of £50.00 sterling, the rough conversion gets you to €62.50. Again you have to consider that it is an import and there will be transport costs and also currencies do fluctuate and these are rough calculations, but if you feel it is way off then at least you are aware and that’s the only position to effect change. If we don’t know we are being ripped off, how can we stop it?
Retailers also have to wise up and stop complaining about the impact of internet shopping and the fact that footfall and general spending trends are down in traditional shops. Naturally I will run to the internet if I can save myself a few hundred euro, as is often the case in the world of electronics, when you consider the dollar price and more recently the sterling cost. When shops behave badly there is quite a lot at stake. Jobs will be lost, units will lie empty and the tendency is to lay this at the door of the economy and poor consumer confidence. Retailers need to take back some of the responsibility and start ploughing back in some of the gains made by playing the currency card and give us some value for a change.
As for the consumer, we often feel that our hands are tied and there is little we can do. We want the merchandise and therefore we have no choice but to pay through the nose for it. It would be silly to suggest that we boycott all the non-Irish shops and hope that they pack up and leave. That is the other extreme, and equally daft. I enjoy the choice on offer in Waterford and I welcome the employment by these multi-nationals that certainly feeds into the local economy, but is it too much to ask that they play fair? Let’s face it, apart from providing employment, many of the larger multinationals do little for the local communities. When it comes to charities, for example, it is usually the smaller, Irish owned, local retailers that are asked for sponsorship or charity prizes. You rarely see (if ever) landscaped roundabouts sponsored by anyone other than local businesses. (To keep this in balance we would have to acknowledge Tesco for using Irish suppliers and also allowing charities and clubs to bag pack and raise funds that way.) However, I could give you a list of retailers that don’t contribute anything much, other than their store, to local endeavours.
Action must be taken and unfortunately it has to come from some government body or through legislation. They should insist that the sterling prices can’t be displayed unless the shops are willing to accept sterling at the tills (or at least insist that the staff wear balaclavas and carry weapons so we are aware of the daylight robbery going on!), but don’t continue to insult our intelligence by grossly overcharging and believe that we are stupid enough to pay anyway.