Bleak Arcadia news points to future marred by empty units

Online-only destiny of fashion brands will cost jobs and hurt towns and cities

It has been a bleak start to 2021 for many retailers, and for almost 500 Irish employees of collapsed UK fashion group Arcadia, it couldn't get any more miserable.

After a meeting with liquidators at Deloitte, the Mandate trade union has confirmed that 490 workers at liquidated companies Arcadia Group Multiples Ireland, Topshop/Topman Ireland, Wallis Retail Ireland and Miss Selfridge Retail Ireland will be made redundant, receiving only statutory redundancy pay.

The impact of such liquidations at a time like this may be difficult for some to see – literally – amid the general doom of shops shuttered by Covid-19 restrictions. But the permanent loss of the 14 Arcadia-owned stores in the State, as well as its department store concessions, undoubtedly raises further questions about what Irish city centres and shopping centres will look like once the pandemic dust settles and the surviving retailers are permitted to reopen.

Arcadia hasn’t been the only casualty over the past year. Employment in the retail sector is unlikely to recover to pre-Covid levels, while empty shop units could blight some areas for years.

Once the thriving empire of ex-billionaire Philip Green, Arcadia was struggling before the pandemic and its demise is not a massive surprise. Nor is it wholly unexpected that the retailers set to buy its brands out of administration – Asos is on the cusp of sealing a deal for Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge, while Boohoo has swooped for the less favoured Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Burton – are online-only operations that have zero interest in keeping on the shops or their staff.

What no one could have anticipated before last March is that the world would be in such an unusually grim place by the time of Arcadia’s failure and that an ecommerce future was effectively guaranteed to be the only one available to its once ascendant brands. The same was indeed true for Oasis and Warehouse, the online businesses of which were snapped up by Boohoo last June.

A whole generation of shoppers already regards offline browsing and purchasing as more of a novelty than a default option. The societal consequences of this shift are yet to be fully considered by the Government, but it might want to start thinking about them soon – or at least before it becomes too late to prevent a spiral of decline in our towns and cities.

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