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Holiday shopping in a pandemic

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When I connect to Santa Claus over Zoom, he is busy on another phone call with US president-elect Joe Biden. He clutches a red plastic telephone to his bearded cheek as he sits between a brightly lit Christmas tree and a table bearing a gold-painted typewriter.

He hangs up and excuses himself for being late. “Leila! Your new president needed my help, but now I’m all yours. Do you have your hand san-TA-tiser and your mask? Ho-ho-ho! What do you want this year?”

No, this was not a fever dream. This is Christmas shopping in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The event planners at UK department store Selfridges came up with “Dial-a-Santa” virtual appointments as a way for kids to have a version of the traditional experience while still respecting social distancing.

Selfridges is hosting ‘Dial-a-Santa’ virtual appointments this season © Leila Abboud

It is one of many tactics being tried by high-end retailers and luxury brands in Europe as they try to save the crucial Christmas shopping season. Others include offering appointments with sales associates to help clients shop using smartphone video or chat, and creating pop-up events to tempt people back, such as Selfridges’ outdoor Christmas market featuring a gigantic helter skelter ride.

In the UK, France, Belgium, Ireland and northern Italy, all “non-essential” retail outlets were closed in November, although governments have recently allowed them to reopen with mask-wearing required. Stores have remained open elsewhere in Europe, but governments have still urged citizens to stay home as much as possible.

It is not exactly a recipe for the joyful consumerism that retailers and brands usually seek to stoke at this time of year. But try they must: the shopping period between the Black Friday promotions on November 27 and December 25 generates 20 to 50 per cent of annual sales for non-food retailers, according to EuroCommerce, the EU retail trade association.

In luxury, the Christmas holiday season accounts for roughly one-third of sales depending on the brand, according to Bain & Company management consultant Claudia D’Arpizio, with December sales usually double that of a normal month and November often one-third more.

Holiday decorations on the Dior store in Paris © Reuters

The pandemic has also scrambled the types of things that consumers want to buy. Out is stumping up for “experiences” such as trips and five-star meals. More in favour are so-called “timeless luxury” purchases such as classic Chanel or Dior jackets, and things for the home.

With big-spending Chinese tourists who drive most of luxury’s growth still unable to travel to Europe, stores are also having to cater more to locals. At the Paris department store Le Bon Marché, that meant a dizzying array of scented candles and intricate plants in terrariums.

“Psychologically, the luxury shopper wants to buy but still has fewer occasions to dress up than normal,” says D’Arpizio. “It’s really hard to predict how the season will turn out.”

On the various reopening days, some people were very excited about being able to shop in person again. There were long queues outside the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysées, the Hermès and Moncler stands at Harrods in London, and luxury mall Rinascente in Milan.

Meredith, a 72-year-old London resident, had come to buy gifts on Oxford Street for her grandson and was dressed impeccably for the outing in a Gucci coat and beige trousers. “I’ve missed shopping, and I am too old for online,” she said. She left laden with three bags of toys.

In Paris, I struggled to muster any enthusiasm for shopping for gifts online in November — too little time and even less patience. Instead I turned to the few open shops and ended up buying a haul of gourmet foodstuffs, including paté from the Basque country, chocolate truffles and sardines from Brittany.

Drawing people back to the stores may be complicated by restrictions on crowds. In Paris, Le Bon Marché can allow roughly 3,750 people in at once, one-third of normal attendance. Harrods can have 4,500 people in its 1 million-square-foot flagship in London, far from the 12,000-18,000 it would have per day in a normal Christmas season. Some outlets are extending hours to get more people in the doors safely.

Selfridges plans to offer discounts from Boxing Day © Simon Dawson

Michael Ward, the managing director of Harrods, says complying with such restrictions was the “right thing to do” for staff and customers. But the 15-year Harrods veteran worried that it would struggle to sell all the merchandise that buyers had chosen in January when they put in Christmas orders. “Just think of all the Christmas pudding!” he jokes. “Four weeks of the key selling season have been lost so we will have a lot of Christmas left over.”

To cope, Harrods is starting to discount far earlier than usual, applying up to 50 per cent reductions to some items, effectively moving up promotions that usually occur on Boxing Day to early December. “We’ve got to make sure we get rid of the stock in case there is another lockdown,” says Ward.

Selfridges does not plan to discount until Boxing Day, says buying and merchandising director Sebastian Manes. It instead hopes to draw people in with temporary installations, such as a Fendi-branded bar serving a Fendi Cosmo for £14. During a recent visit, there was a woman guitarist singing next to a Prada-themed Christmas tree made of red and pink ribbon.

Shoppers stroll past a Louis Vuitton store in London the day after England’s second lockdown ended on December 2 © Xinhua News Agency/eyevine

Many department stores and luxury brands have also turbocharged their online retailing efforts this year.

That is the case for Louis Vuitton. Chief executive Michael Burke says the spring lockdowns showed the importance of giving autonomy to its 12,000 client advisers, who are tasked with developing ongoing relationships with big-spending customers. By giving them access to more information such as live inventory, Louis Vuitton turned “every one into a store manager”, says Burke, able to sell whenever and from wherever they are, regardless of whether the brand’s 470 worldwide stores are open.

At Louis Vuitton’s Bond Street store, client advisers recently streamed a floral arrangement class to keep VIPs engaged. And for American clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the brand will send mobile store to their home with items tailored to please.

Louis Vuitton’s mobile store is travelling to US customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut © Louis Vuitton

Will it be enough to match a normal Christmas for Louis Vuitton? “I think we’ll do even better than last year,” says Burke, noting the brand’s online retail operation was sending out “about 30,000 packages a day this year, compared to 13,000 a day last year.”

In Paris, some people wanted to keep their Christmas traditions even if the pandemic required some adaptation. Charlotte Musilier and her 12-year old daughter Barbara had come to admire the elaborate window displays at Galeries Lafayette as they did every year. “So what if we have to wear masks and keep our distance?” said the mother as her daughter smiled at a set of dancing puppets. “We are just happy to be here.”

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris

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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 

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France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.



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