Gap’s Irish exit a signal that retail exodus shows no sign of slowing

US brand joins a host of other retailers closing their physical shops in Ireland

The decision by US clothing retailer Gap to extricate itself from bricks and mortar retail stores in Ireland may have come as a shock to consumers here. But the writing was on the wall.

In November 2018, the US-based parent group, Gap Inc, said it was considering closing hundreds of stores as sales at the brand slid. Earlier this year, the company noted that its online sales for the whole of 2020 rose 54 per cent compared with the previous year while its store sales declined by 39 per cent.

Unfortunate as Gap’s decision is, particularly for employees, it makes sense given the acceleration of online retail as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with the Irish arm’s prior difficulties in this market.

Gap is just the latest in a growing list of retailers to shutter its Irish bricks-and-mortar operations.

Figures from GeoDirectory indicate that 2,000 fewer retail and wholesale businesses had a registered address at the end of 2020, a decline of 5.3 per cent compared to 2019.

Richard Guiney, chief executive of business representative group Dublin Town, noted that the vacancy rate on Grafton Street in the capital before the reopening of retail this year was at 18 per cent. Henry Street at one point had a vacancy rate of 31 per cent, although that has since fallen. Nevertheless, Guiney said that level was "way higher than anything we saw in the recession" post 2008.

Liquidation

Debenhams was placed into liquidation in April 2020 after its UK parent entered administration, closing 11 stores in the Republic in the process.

Its decision affected some 1,000-directly employed staff and hundreds more working in concession outlets in the shops. The 243-year-old Debenhams brand now solely exists online, after it was bought by the online retailer Boohoo. com, which closed the company's remaining stores in May of this year.

Liquidators were appointed to the Oasis and Warehouse Group in April 2020 as troubles in the company's UK-arm affected operations in the Republic. And again, the online behemoth Boohoo came to the rescue, snapping up the online business of Oasis and Warehouse for £5.25 million (€6.1m).

Yet another UK brand with stores in the Republic that folded was the Arcadia Group. Shoppers will recall brands under its ownership such as Topshop, Topman, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins. It was November 2020 when liquidators were appointed, a move that ultimately led to the closure of six stores here and the loss of about 500 jobs. An online suitor quickly came to rescue the brands, with Asos acquiring Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and HIIT in a £295 million deal.

Of course, it hasn't just been brands controlled by UK companies that have suffered as a result of the pandemic. In the Republic, baby and child retailer Mothercare slipped into liquidation in June 2020, thereby closing its 14 branches. The decision to close what was a franchise of a UK-based operation, led to the loss of almost 200 jobs here.

Domestic casualty

House of Ireland was another locally-owned casualty of the pandemic. In June 2020, the tourist-focused giftware retail group with high-profile outlets in Dublin and Belfast said it was shutting down. Closure of the business, operated for 45 years by the same family, affected about 50 staff. The company said at the time: “With the tourist market decimated and the future very uncertain as to when it will recover, the directors have been advised to put the business into liquidation.”

Other brands including Laura Ashley, Monsoon, Accessorize, Aldo, Cath Kidston, TM Lewin, Inglot and TUI closed branches here last year, a trend that has continued into 2021.

In April, Carphone Warehouse made public its decision to close 80 stores in the Republic, leading to the loss of almost 500 jobs. The company's parent, Dixons Carphone, blamed changes in how people are now shopping for the decision, saying the closures were a "necessary step" in the company's mobile transformation. The Irish business had actually been loss making for years.

Add to that Tommy Hilfiger’s decision to abandon its Grafton Street shop and the departure of UK stationery company Paperchase from Dundrum Town Centre.

Keelan Bourke, head of commercial at lobby group Retail Excellence, explained that “some retail models are no longer viable at pre-pandemic rent levels”.

“Retail Excellence members have informed us that some landlords are demanding full rent for the entire period of the 2021 closure, which is totally unsustainable. Commercial rents need to come down in order to make units viable in this new world of omnichannel retailing.

“We have seen interest from retail groups across Europe and Asia now looking at Ireland to expand so in the long term retail will survive,” he added.

Low footfall

But the difficulty of low footfall remains. Dublin Town’s Guiney noted that footfall last week in key shopping areas was 60 per cent of what it was for the same week in 2019. “We anticipate we’ll probably stay in that kind of range for the next while and then when indoor hospitality reopens we’ll cross the 70 per cent threshold,” he said, adding that “without office workers in the city and without tourism we don’t see that we’re going to get much beyond 70-75 per cent”.

To solve the problem of vacant units in key retail hotspots, Guiney advocates for increased residential and hospitality use. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time. I think we’ll come out of this with a very different city,” he said.

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