Government needs plan to save retail zones

The surfeit of vacancies in town and city centres is too complex and widespread to be left to local authorities to deal with alone

A Gap store in London, Britain. The US fashion brand has announced it plans to close all of its 81 stores in Ireland and the UK, and sell its clothes online only. Photograph: EPA/Andy Rain

A Gap store in London, Britain. The US fashion brand has announced it plans to close all of its 81 stores in Ireland and the UK, and sell its clothes online only. Photograph: EPA/Andy Rain

 

The exodus of retail names from Irish streets started before the pandemic, but the trend has accelerated sharply due to anti-virus restrictions that have reduced footfall. With big government back in fashion, the State badly needs a formal plan to address the hollowing out of city and town centres.

The latest big name to make for the exit and go online is US apparel giant Gap, which last week announced the phased closure over August and September of all 81 of its stores in Ireland and the UK. It operates here from three locations in Dublin, as well as Cork and Limerick.

Gap’s five Irish stores are mostly in shopping centres and retail parks, and not on main thoroughfares, but the fact that its departure could pass almost without commentary is indicative of how inured the sector has become to big name exits. Debenhams, Monsoon, Oasis, Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Warehouse are just some of the other retailers that have left the scene recently.

The drift from bricks and mortar to online shopping began in earnest about three years ago. But prior to the virus the impact on the streets was often softened by the fact that each time a shop closed, there was a queue of hospitality operators to take the retailer’s place. The pandemic has shut off that safety valve for town centres as the hospitality sector has been hardest hit by restrictions. Now whenever a shop closes it may stay empty for a long time.

Dublin’s north inner city, in particular, is burdened with dire vacancy rates. It was estimated by Dublin Town, a local traders group, that up to 30 per cent of the stores on Henry Street were vacant when the non-essential retail sector reopened in May. The southern end of Grafton Street, meanwhile, has been scarred with vacant shops for more than 18 months.

The wider issue is interlinked with virus restrictions, the drift to online shopping, a lack of tourism and the trend towards working from home. It is too complex and too widespread to be left to local authorities to address, which has been the case until now. The Government needs to step in and take control by devising a central policy framework to pull urban retail zones out of this vortex.

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