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Diarmuid Gavin and Dunnes Stores aim for Outer Spaces

Caveat: Better value beats them all, but sharper ideas can trump the competition

The corporate headquarters of Dunnes Stores, which hides in plain sight behind a glass door on Dublin's South Great George's Street, is virgin territory for most media. Ireland's biggest retailer doesn't talk to news journalists. Ever. Much less allow them into its nerve centre.

"Come on in, it's all arranged," says celebrity garden designer Diarmuid Gavin, ushering The Irish Times over the threshold. He has teamed up with Dunnes for the upcoming launch a new range of plants and garden accessories.

Gavin believes he and Dunnes have devised “a new way to sell plants”. An in-store prototype is mocked up inside and he wants to show it off.

When it launches in about two months, Diarmuid Gavin's Outer Spaces will be the latest designer collaboration entered into by Dunnes, whose veteran matriarch Margaret Heffernan still looms large over the Irish retailing sector.


In recent years, Dunnes has implemented a clear shift in strategy. In blunt terms, it has gone upmarket, although insiders describe it as simply following customers on a journey. Consumers are out shopping again. If they want more luxury and better lifestyle offerings, Dunnes wants to provide it.


It has entered partnerships with the likes of Sheridan Cheesemongers and also bought Café Sol and the James Whelan chain of upscale butchers. It tried to buy Avoca Handweavers and was recently rumoured to be eyeing Donnybrook Fair.

It is also in the midst of a round of store revamps and has turned to Irish designers to launch new ranges. The new garden range with Gavin – the high-profile, even higher energy, mercurial garden designer – looks like it may have the potential to elevate Dunnes’ new lifestyle-themed strategy to a higher plane.

The airy lobby of the private retailing group’s headquarters is not what you might expect. The glass ceiling is five stories high, the space below overlooked by mezzanine balconies. Millennial staff zip about, while others queue for coffee at the the Café Sol booth across from reception.

There are meeting pods dotted about, some with with wide-screen televisions. The space is all glass, exposed brick and conspicuous industrial metal – more akin to what you’d expect to find in a Silicon Docks tech outfit.

Behind the lobby, facing towards Dublin Castle, lies a vast room known internally as “the void”. In here, Dunnes mocks up new store layouts, conducts fashion shoots and generally tests out new ideas.

Gavin, buzzing about and fuelled by a large americano, waves his arm towards the back of the room, where he has built an Outer Spaces mock-up. It looks like a well-planned in-store jungle, somehow managing to appear geometric and unruly at the same time. A garden centre selling geranium trays this is not.

Purple grow lamps hang from the ceiling. Along with the Dunnes buying team, Gavin has sourced unusual plants from breeders around the world. Some, he announces, were “growing only in jungles in Borneo a couple of years ago”.

There are houseplants, indoor trees, plants for balconies. Among the accessories and pots, some are simple, others zany. Gavin has brought a whiff of his Willy Wonka approach to design into the heart of a 74-year-old retailing behemoth.

“Dunnes have given me the most extraordinary free rein,” he says, sinking the last of the coffee. “People might not view Dunnes this way, but they are so open to new ideas.” The amiable Dunnes executive sitting nearby smiles broadly.


Recently, Gavin led a Dunnes delegation to Amsterdam to visit Wildernis, a “cafe jungle”. Gavin wants to open, possibly this weekend, an Outer Spaces pop-up in a vacant Dunnes-owned unit next to the group HQ.

“There will be coffee and plants, and perhaps a guy strumming a guitar on a Thursday evening. We will use it to train Dunnes staff and get a feel for what customers want from us.”

Outer Spaces, which was signed off by Dunnes top management only this week, is initially slated for eight of the most recently refurbished outlets, including St Stephen’s Green, Rathmines, Cornelscourt and Bandon Road in Cork.

A further eight are in the pipeline and more will be rolled out as Dunnes’ ongoing store refurbishment plan is implemented. In the meantime, Gavin wants to acquire an old US school bus, which will be repainted hippy style, and converted into a mobile garden centre that will pitch up in various Dunnes car parks.

“We want to create a new way to sell plants. There has to be a digital element,” says Gavin. Exotic plants will have barcodes that consumers will be able to read with their smartphones, giving information on their origin.

Gavin has also been quietly building a new Instagram profile in anticipation of the Outdoor Space launch.

“We want to disrupt,” he says, lapsing into digital patter. Some things , however, are easier to disrupt than others.

When conversation turns to the views of Heffernan, the personification of Dunnes circumspect view of news media, Gavin smiles and chooses his words more carefully.

“Mrs Heffernan,” he says respectfully, “didn’t want me to just endorse a range. She wanted me, and my ideas and creations, to be part of the offering.”

Gavin, who is notoriously demanding to work with, appears to have melded with the ways of Dunnes under Heffernan. The emails “from on high”, he smiles, sometimes start at 4am. But the relationship is working well.

“Mrs Heffernan even sent me a Christmas card with a Dunnes voucher enclosed,” he says. “I thought that was really nice.”

Better value beats them all. Better ideas can also beat the competition.


What’s the beef on Goodman?

Beef baron Larry Goodman’s wealth is difficult to ascertain. Various rich lists usually put it above €800 million. But as his empire expands along with the prospects for the Irish food sector, the businessman, who is also heavily invested in the burgeoning property market, is surely worth more than that.

Given that he has bought a stake in Independent News & Media, as revealed in this newspaper on Thursday, it is probably safe to say that there are now three billionaires on the register at Ireland's largest publishing group.

Hopefully Goodman, Dermot Desmond and Denis O'Brien can all get along.

GDPR and brain freeze

An annoying flood of privacy emails from firms about the new General Data Protection Regulation regime turned into a tsunami of brain-deadening sameness in recent days.

This one, however, attached to a missive sent to a colleague by the European Safety Transport Council, stands out: “He’s making a list/He’s checking it twice/He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice/Santa Claus is in contravention of article 4 of the General Data Protection Regulation (EU). . .”

Please, Santa. All I want for Christmas is a decluttered inbox.

Going dutch

A leading UK tax lawyer, Miles Dean from Milestone International Tax, contacted The Irish Times with an interesting take on accusations by Dutch politicians that this State has facilitated tax avoidance by the Dutch state railway.

“It is highly hypocritical for Dutch politicians to start bleating that another member state is depriving them of tax revenues,” he said.

"The Netherlands was one of the first, if not the first jurisdiction to offer itself up as a conduit for tax purposes. Indeed, the Netherlands is still acting as a conduit for the likes of Starbucks, Google and any number of other multinationals."