Costa del Penneys, hun

I’ve forgotten what phase of lifting coronavirus restrictions we are meant to be in – is it two or three? – but I know that shops and businesses have begun to open again. There are more people out and about and the town is almost back to its old self, which is heartening to see.

The only indication that we haven’t fully emerged from the corona-Matrix is the abundance of mask-wearing folk queueing carefully, if slightly impatiently, outside shop premises. That and the amount of hand sanitiser stations businesses have hastily erected to comply with the government’s orders. If capitalism is to survive corona it must be a capitalism that is caring and compliant – and clean. Squeaky clean.

Penneys (aka Primark) kept everyone waiting for its reopening, which happened late last week – once again I don’t know the exact date because all the days are bleeding into one at the moment.

It might have been a Friday. Whenever it was it was a momentous occasion and one that will certainly go down in Irish consumer affairs history. For those who don’t know Penneys, it is a shopping institution for Irish people – young and old. It’s cheap and does nice clothes, shoes, home decor-type stuff, and cosmetics. And we love it. Penneys is dependable, affordable, and, for many people, including myself, it allows us to access high street fashion on a low budget.

Forget your Chanels, your Guccis, your Dolce & Gabbanas; Penneys can always be relied upon to stock cheap rip-offs of the trends we lust after on the catwalks. It has democratised fashion in a sense by making it so easily accessible, and we didn’t realise we had a good thing going until it closed all its branches when coronavirus came calling.

Now that the popular franchise has reopened all its stores people are flocking to them in, perhaps unsafe, numbers. With that in mind, the Irish Times despatched consumer affairs correspondent, Conor Pope, to vox pop those brave first few hundred Penneys customers.

His vox pops which were done outside one of the franchise’s many Dublin shops formed an article that was an amusing portrayal of Irish consumers. Most of the people Pope spoke to were women, and, unsurprisingly, they were all hardcore Penneys fans.

To Pope’s dismay, most had been queueing outside the shop since the small hours that morning. (The article is available on the Irish Times website – you’ll have to go through the paywall – but, fear not, you’ll be charged less than the cost of a pair of socks from Penneys to read it, and others.)

I got the sense – and I could be wrong – that Pope isn’t a hardcore Penneys fan. If one could measure such a thing as love for Penneys, I’d say Pope might be a 2 or a 3. He’s ambivalent. The people he interviewed would be all 10s or 11s. I’m a five; I like the place and I buy most of my clothes and other “bits” from it but would I drag myself out of bed at 5am in the middle of a pandemic to queue for it to open? Not a chance.

From the looks of things, most people agree that anyone who did queue the first day was a bit bonkers. By “the looks of things,” I mean Twitter, of course, which is where I read all the takes on Penneys reopening.

The computer-bound commentariat was saying all manner of things about the crazy queuers, most of which revealed its own craziness. Some people were getting mad about the classist tone to some of the comments; others were castigating the shoppers for their “selfishness” and lack of adherence to social distancing rules. Most people were simply taking the piss.

It’s easy to take the piss out of the Penneys huns, but where will these piss-takers be when its the weekend before they’re finally allowed to return en masse to their offices? Why, in Penneys, of course. They’ll be eyeing up the shirts; they’ll be stocking up on hosiery, and they’ll have that dazed look on their face – a look that says I don’t remember the last time I felt so ordinary.

Perhaps then it might dawn on them that they have been taking Penneys for granted all these years pre-corona. For some, Penneys is just a useful one-stop-shop kind of place to pick up socks and jocks, but for others, it is an enjoyable place to spend time in. They wander around looking and rifling through crowded rails for a bargain or they make a beeline for that black t-shirt that they need for work, perhaps stopping to pick up some extra bits on the way to the checkout where an automated voice calls “Cashier number four,” and so on, ad nauseam until the queue is gone.

I suppose our enduring love of – and reliance on – Penneys is a laughing matter to some. You might call them classist snobs, or, perhaps, Dad. I certainly smiled more than once at the jokes being made at the expense of all the people queueing outside Penneys shops around the country last week, but some took the jibes too far.

We are all looking forward to different once-familiar experiences on emerging from lockdown, and, to a lot of people, Penneys is one of these experiences. So, yeah, Penneys is a franchise that relies on cheap labour from poorer parts of the world to supply stock to us greedy consumers but it is not the only franchise that does this – and one can hardly place the blame for this on the shoulders of the several thousand queuers last Friday (or whenever it was).

They were just ordinary people excited to be excited about something normal for the first time in the months since the pandemic changed their lives. Who would begrudge anyone the chance, now a privilege, of picking up “a few bits” in town now we’re doing better? Nobody’s going anywhere else this Summer, after all.

See youse in Costa del Penneys – the panacea for what ails us.

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