Quebec shoppers and retailers frustrated and confused about what is an 'essential product'

As Quebecers start 2021, many are scratching their heads or voicing frustrations about what they're allowed to shop for until Jan. 11 when the province's "circuit breaker" lockdown is set to end.

Frustrated voices are growing about the arbitrariness of what is deemed essential or not.

While shops deemed non-essential have been ordered closed, stores such as Pharmaprix, Walmart and Costco remain open, but are restricted to selling "everyday items".

The vague wording has led many shoppers to question the arbitrariness of the rule.

Alicia Aghazarian is in the process of moving and ran out of Scotch tape while packing up her home. She went to Dollarama.

"As I got to the cash, the cashier scanned it and it said non-essential," she said. "She proceeded to tell me she could not sell me these items as they were deemed non-essential. Yet Tic Tacs, gum, Mentos (all candies) are deemed essential. I understand the reasoning but not being able to buy things that people actually need like scotch tape or paper (because that was blocked off too) is a bit ridiculous."

Aghazarian said the cashier understood the situation and scanned a pack of gum at the same price, so she could continue preparing for her move.

Many shoppers complained about not being able to buy basic and winter clothing items such as socks, underwear, scarves or winter coats.

"I can buy chips but not a winter jacket?" said Samantha Caucci.

"I am considered an essential worker and take the bus to work. I can not buy a scarf," said Kristin Milne. "They say we had enough time to get these items. I work and finish with not enough time to get to the stores. I think this is rather ridiculous. I can buy chocolate bars and gum but no boots or coats (my coat now has a hole and can't even buy a needle to repair it myself!"

It's not just the shoppers who are frustrated.

"I work in a pharmacy, and we have blocked off all the products that were deemed non-essential according to the information we have received," said Sylvie Heckley from Potton, Quebec, a small town with a population of under 2,000 people. "It is very confusing for clients and employees to understand why certain things are covered and not others."

Heckley like all pharmacy, grocery store, SAQ and any other retail outlet staff has had to count shoppers, ensure they distance, disinfect their hands and wear a mask throughout the pandemic.

Now, she is required to limit what they buy.

"Our population in our town is working hard to keep our family and friends healthy," she said. "Why can't I go to our local Rona and buy a coffee maker to replace mine that died on Christmas day, but I can order one online from Amazon? how does that keep our local businesses from going bankrupt? how does it help their employees pay rent or buy food for their families?" 

Caucci is doubly frustrated that she cannot purchase razors though a medical condition means she desperately needs them.

"I have to use a razor every single day and those, according to the government aren’t essential? For me it is!" she said.

The Retail Council of Canada posted a guide for businesses operating in the circuit breaker.

"No list will be provided by the government – retailers must use their best judgement," the post reads." All essential products that are approved to be sold must come from categories that serve the following needs; food, hygiene, health, security and repairs."

Martin Fortin of the RCC said the council had a similar issue with Manitoba when that government instituted a similar order.

"They decided to provide flexibility, meaning they've left it up to retailers unfortunately and customers through their common sense to find out what was essential or not," said Fortin.

He added that on Jan. 11, retailers must either be allowed to reopen or much more clear guidelines need to be in place.

"What we care about as retailers is how to we service to the needs of the population - our customers," said Fortin. "If we go past January 11, it'll be a nightmare because what is not essential in those two weeks is going to become essential."

If hygiene is essential, Caucci wonders why her friend who is currently nursing a baby cannot get breast pumps, nursing pads and other items.

"But hey we can still get alcohol!" she said. "If they were going to do this at least make it make sense!"

Marion Preston was frustrated after buyhing a lamp from Rona online and opting to pick the item up at the store. 

"I have done this before and you literally enter the store and there is the pickup counter," said Preston. "After I placed the order, the store called me and offered to ship it to me for a $70 charge! I live down the street from the store. I declined and was asked then if I wanted to cancel the order. I still wanted the light and said I would pick it up and was told 'after January 11th or longer, before I could get it.'"

Preston said the site did not say pick up was not allowed.

"I feel this was implemented in such a hurry, no really knows what is going on," said Preston.

Some business owners also complained that they can now not run out for office essentials such as envelopes, poster board or printer ink.

"Why are Apple products deemed necessary items at Walmart, but printer cartridges for my printer that I need for my business are not available for purchasing?" said Billy Batts from Laval. "How does that make any sense to anyone?"

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