Coronavirus: Makeup, high-heels, scented candles sold as 'essential items' in New Zealand

High-end retailers are selling makeup, high-heels, corsets, frangipani seeds and scented candles as 'essential items' during New Zealand's COVID-19 lockdown.

Other premium brands are flogging off $650 pairs of boots, $439 scarves and many more luxury clothing items, prompting a backlash from Kiwis who say their products should not come under the umbrella of 'essential'.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the Government agency that allowed them to resume trading, says high-end fashion products should not be for sale during the lockdown period.

However the Director-General of Health and a top fashion PR manager are defending both the retailers and MBIE's decision to allow them to keep trading.

The development comes as MBIE expands the number and type of businesses that are allowed to operate while New Zealand's coronavirus response is set at alert level 4.

At alert level 4, only 'essential services' can open - supermarkets, pharmacies and media outlets, for example. But recently some fashion retailers were given sign-off to operate, as they sell warm clothing that MBIE considers "vital for people to access and to facilitate life and work".

Many Kiwis believe brands are exploiting this definition to sell expensive and unnecessary products.

One high-end retailer, Sisters and Co, faced a barrage of criticism on Monday after announcing it would be selling products online from this week. Instagram comments seen by Newshub - from its own followers - labelled Sisters and Co "a joke" and claimed it had put profits ahead of customers.

And the retailer is far from alone; premium fashion brands all over the country, given sign-off by MBIE to resume trading, have been widely panned by their own customer base for making a return during lockdown.

What MBIE had to say

In a statement to Newshub, MBIE said it wouldn't discuss the merits of particular retailers being allowed to operate.

However it urged businesses to "take a restrictive view of what is essential in these unprecedented times and act responsibly".

"Examples of goods being offered that should not be available at this time include the likes of decorative candles, treadmills, and high-end premium fashion clothing," it said.

MBIE says businesses must also take care to comply with all the added measures placed on them during the alert level 4 lockdown, such as only trading by phone or online, adopting new hygiene practices and only sending out essential items.

'I don't believe in that argument' - fashion PR agency

A top fashion PR agent says he doesn't believe in the argument that premium brands should close up simply because they fetch a higher price for their products.

Showroom 22 public relations director Murray Bevan says the criticism is unjustified because "what may be really expensive for one person is not super expensive for another".

"I don't think someone who has the ability or desire to buy what others would deem expensive products should be chastised for that at all. That's their option," he said.

"People taking umbrage with there being expensive items online - I don't believe in that argument. If you need boots, you go and choose boots that are up to your price point."

When quizzed on the issue during the daily COVID-19 press briefing at the Beehive, the Director-General of Health said he had no problem with MBIE's decisions so far.

"I'm not concerned, and I think the rationale behind fashion retailers is because we're coming into winter, and it's cooler," Dr Ashley Bloomfield said.

"Each business knows what the expectations are. [MBIE] has thorough processes in place… it has done a very good job at delineating what is essential."

Could MBIE have avoided controversy with tougher measures?

There is an argument the Government could have enacted more uncompromising measures early on, to discourage fashion retailers from exploiting loopholes to stay open.

For instance, they might've singled out one or two major retailers with stores all over New Zealand - such as The Warehouse, Kmart or Farmers - and allocated them as the only places to buy warm clothing from.

However Showroom 22's Bevan says this approach would've been fraught with even more controversy.

"There's an argument for that, but I don't know how the Government would've put their finger on which of those companies should've been allowed to [open]," he said.

"Of course there would've been backlash from the industry... That's obviously not a solution that would please everybody."

Adding fuel to the 'essential service' controversy

The contention around fashion retailers is the latest debate in New Zealand about the merits of particular industries.

Last month, The Warehouse, The Mad Butcher and two Auckland bakeries opted to shut down their operations due to major public backlash, after originally announcing they would open under MBIE rules.

Similarly, a Lower Hutt cigarette factory has continued operating despite widespread outcry. At the time, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defended MBIE's decision to allow Imperial Tobacco to remain open.

"You'll of course have noted that we shut down New Zealand in a 48-hour period, so we kept the guidance very simple: if you supply to our supermarkets, then those workforces are able to continue to produce supplies."

Conversely, there has also been public pressure on the Government to allow greengrocers, butchers and local news outlets to open during the lockdown.

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