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Europe’s retailers fret over crucial Christmas period as lockdowns bite



At this time of year, Jens Begeschke would normally be preparing to sell his range of handmade paper lanterns to glühwein-drinking customers at dozens of Christmas markets across Germany. 

But the second wave of coronavirus infections and lockdowns has led to the cancellation of almost all of Germany’s 3,000 festive markets, wrecking Mr Begeschke’s plans and throwing the fate of thousands of businesses such as his into doubt.

“We ordered the products from our suppliers in India in February: we could not have anticipated the impact of the virus then,” said the 48-year-old, who has run Sterne vom Himmel — Stars from Heaven — for the past decade.

Although he has also been selling via his website for several years, Mr Begeschke doubts online orders will make up for the loss of the majority of his business that usually comes at this time of year. “We’re totally reliant on the Christmas markets. I worry our suppliers might go bankrupt if we don’t order anything next year,” he said.

Across Europe, retailers are pleading for governments to lift lockdowns to save the crucial shopping period between the Black Friday promotions on November 27 and Christmas. These four weeks generate 20-50 per cent of annual sales for many non-food retailers, according to Eurocommerce, the EU retail trade association.

Chart showing retailers have rebounded but critical Christmas period looms

The latest lockdowns, which have closed non-essential shops in a host of European countries and restricted movement and social interactions, would make this year “particularly challenging”, said Christian Verschueren, Eurocommerce director-general. 

Smaller retailers “will struggle to survive any extended period of lockdown”, he warned. “Some of our members are predicting up to 30 per cent of clothing shops, who depend particularly on the Christmas period, will never open again.”

La Fée Qui Cloche, a toy store just north of Montmartre in Paris, is another business confronting huge challenges. Miya Pellissard-Yadan, its owner, said she was extremely angry that hers and other non-essential retailers had been forced to close as part of France’s lockdown. “It’s just horribly unfair,” she said.

The shop would usually make 15 per cent of its annual sales in November and a further quarter in December, Ms Pellissard-Yadan said.

Visitors walk along the boulevard Unter den Linden in the German capital Berlin © Maja Hitij/Getty
Shoppers browse among Christmas trees and decorations at Piazza Mercato in Naples, Italy © Ciro Fusco/EPA/Shutterstock

But banned from admitting customers, she has instead cobbled together a click-and-collect system for them to call or text their orders and pick up. But she has no illusions that this will compensate for the lack of footfall. “Buying a stuffed animal for a child online makes no sense. People want to touch it,” she said.

Retail sales in the eurozone fell by a record 21 per cent in the two months after the pandemic hit in March, before rebounding quickly back above last year’s levels once the initial lockdowns were lifted. The biggest year-on-year growth has been in mail order and internet sales as consumers shift spending online.

However, eurozone retail sales started falling again in September as the second surge in the virus gathered pace. Most economists expect the autumn lockdowns to cause a much bigger drop in sales after a survey of purchasing managers in October pointed to reduced activity at many services businesses. The EU consumer confidence indicator for November, published on Friday, is expected to fall to its lowest level since May.

Some believe vaccine breakthroughs announced this month by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna will provide sufficient hope to allow many shops, restaurants and other customer-facing businesses to keep struggling on for better times ahead.

“It’s a really grim outlook,” said Anatoli Annenkov, economist at French bank Société Générale. “But with the vaccine on its way, there will probably be enough investment to keep most of these businesses going.”

A closed Christmas market stall in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin © Maja Hitij/Getty
A shop window decorated for Christmas in Paris © Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Mohaba, which makes glühwein mugs for Christmas markets across Germany and around the world, is counting on a coronavirus treatment after sales plunged three-quarters this year, forcing it to postpone a €3m investment in a new production facility.

“The straw I’m clutching at is the Covid-19 vaccine,” said Guido Schlepütz, who runs the company. “If it’s available in the first quarter and there are no further lockdowns . . . [it will determine] whether we will have our life as before the pandemic.”

In Italy, retailers remain closed in most regions until at least early December, while average household Christmas expenditure is set to fall 15 per cent this year, according to the Codacons consumer association. “Santa’s sleigh will be lighter this year as many families begin to feel the squeeze of the Covid-19 crisis,” said Carlo Rienzi, Codacons president.

With many people continuing to work from home, restricted in their ability to travel or socialise, a surge in online sales is predicted alongside higher demand for computing equipment, fitness trackers and gadgets. GfK, the research company, forecast these trends would help keep Black Friday sales stable at about €1tn this year in the 70 countries it tracks — after growth of 20 per cent last year.

Total spending on Black Friday and Cyber Monday in Germany

But this shift is likely to primarily benefit larger retailers with a bigger online presence. Fnac Darty, the French electronics, books and music chain, said it expected to fare better in the second lockdown than the first because its stores remained open for essential sales and its online service was proving popular, said Enrique Martinez, chief executive.

Some products would also sell regardless, he said, such as the new Sony PlayStation 5 console released this month. “A passionate gamer is not going to wait till the end of lockdown to get his PS5,” he added.

At La Fée Qui Cloche in Paris, Ms Pellissard-Yadan pointed to another bright spot amid the gloom: sales of board games. Everything from classics such as Scrabble and chess to newer games including The Mind had been flying off the shelves, she said.

“Everyone is bored at home,” she added ruefully.

Additional reporting by Alexander Vladkov in Frankfurt

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park




Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus




EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.

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