Shopping in town isn’t dead yet – here’s how to save retail in Dublin city centre
Dublin city centre: Small shops, new rules on rent and imagination can save the ‘high street’
Illustration: Fuchsia McAree
As it became apparent close to Christmas that Ireland had lost control of the virus, retailers steeled themselves to battle through another thicket of restrictions. A third full lockdown loomed and for many shops, this one would be a battle simply to survive.
But Gwen Layden, whose family owns the quirky George’s Street Arcade in Dublin city, struck an upbeat tone in a message to her 42 small retail tenants.
“We will support you. Your safety is more important to me than my income. We will give more rent breaks in January . . . do not worry, you’re all fantastic,” she wrote to traders in the mall that her father, maverick investor Joe Layden, bought almost 30 years ago.
Even before the pandemic, as the sands of change blew through Dublin’s retail sector from the relentless grind of e-commerce on bricks and mortar traders, the Arcade was an oasis of independent retailing in the heart of the city. With its hobby shops and vintage clothes outlets, it seemed almost quaint, a reminder of how retailing used to be before brands colonised the streets.
The independent streak
There is now an emerging belief in the sector that for Dublin to revive its retail offering after the pandemic, it must go back to the future: attracting as many independent shops as possible will be vital to success.
Months of living through their laptops has reinforced for consumers that basic, familiar goods can always be bought online. But business groups say independent shops bring more of the colour and experiential qualities that cities need to tempt shoppers and help bricks fight back against clicks.
“All our surveys tell us people want more independent retailing,” says Richard Guiney, chief executive of traders group, Dublin Town. “The big branded stores, such as Debenhams, are the ones that were hit hardest recently. They’re the ones more vulnerable to the structural changes in consumer behaviour.
The retail sector is engaged in a hard lobbying campaign to convince more institutional landlords to switch to turnover-based rents
Layden, an unconventional retail landlord in the mode of her father, is a tad less diplomatic in her assessment of the relative merits of big retailers and their attitude to tough times.
“Bigger brand retailers only come when there is money to be made, and they are the first to leave when times are tough,” says Layden. “They can destroy parts of a city if there are too many of them. Independent retailers bring passion and they’re always pushing it. I prefer the kind of eyeball-to-eyeball relationship you can have with them, and let me tell you, I make as much money as any other landlord in this town.”
Despite the recent exodus of many big UK high street brands from Ireland such as Debenhams, Coast, Oasis and Monsoon, big brands still hold an attraction for many other retail landlords.
Grafton Street retailer, Ciarán Killilea, who runs the Card Gallery shop and another newsagents closer to the bottom (north end) of the street, believes many Dublin property owners will always “fall over themselves” for big names.
“And then they’re the first to go. Smaller independent retailers can navigate these troubled waters. We need more of them. They make up the character of the city’s shopping streets and they are what distinguish us from the likes of Dundrum Town Centre, as long as they can afford the rents,” says Killilea.
High rents have long been a bugbear of Dublin city retailers. Beyond banning upward-only commercial rent reviews over a decade ago, the State has always eschewed involvement in any effort to cap market rents.
The retail sector is engaged in a hard lobbying campaign to convince more institutional landlords to switch to turnover-based rents, which could rise or fall with a shop’s fortunes and trading conditions. The likelihood of tighter rents in future is evident in the fact that some big institutional landlords, such as IPUT, have slashed the book value of prime city centre retail properties by a quarter.
There is unanimity across the retail sector that the pandemic has accelerated the shift – already well under way before Covid-19 – from traditional shopping to online operators, which are unburdened by the vagaries of the rental market.
Ireland’s e-commerce sector was considered to be relatively immature prior to the pandemic compared with, say, the UK’s. Killilea believes the online shift here has undergone a “quantum leap” over the past 20 months.
Guiney argues the key to injecting energy back into Dublin in the future will come in attracting footfall through more hospitality experiences, with the hope that the more traditional bricks and mortar retailers piggyback on the traffic. This approach is also evident in renewal strategies in other medium-sized cities, such as Vancouver in Canada, according to its downtown association.
“One way or another, there is going to be less retail in Dublin. Even before the pandemic, we had more people dining in Dublin than shopping,” says Guiney. “Retail is now only a part of the city experience. When people feel safe to come back, they will dine out again, and the rest will follow. We need those businesses to be kept alive and active for that return.”
In January before the pandemic, retailers around shopping hotspots such as Grafton Street were already complaining about reduced footfall. In March – but before full lockdown – Dublin Town’s research showed the number of shoppers in town was down by close to three quarters on certain days.
International tourists are heavy shoppers. Their absence has already been felt through the recent closure of high-end souvenir shops such as House of Ireland
Numbers recovered somewhat as the first lockdown eased, but even by September, footfall was still down between 22 per cent and 47 per cent on various days during the week. The biggest dips were at the end of the working week, when office workers with that Friday feeling would usually be on the prowl.
Research by Millward Brown in 2015 showed that two-thirds of people who work in the city centre shopped there “often” or “fairly often”. Most of these were women in their early 30s. Men who worked in the city were more likely to combine late-night shopping with socialising.
The recent shift to more working from home may make restoring the city’s retail offering more difficult. Tempting shoppers back in to the city will be a priority for city business groups and planners alike.
“People in the commercial property industry tell me they expect day-to-day office occupancy will get back up to about 60 per cent. It is going to take quite a bit to turn that into retail recovery,” says Guiney.
Dublin is the gateway to Ireland for international tourists, who may be largely absent in 2021 for the second year in a row. Immediately prior to the pandemic, a near decade-long Irish tourism boom had just peaked, with close to 10 million international visitors, the bulk of them passing through the city.
International tourists are heavy shoppers. Their absence has already been felt through the recent closure of high-end souvenir shops such as House of Ireland.
“The exposure to tourism is a big thing for a city like Dublin. I feel we are all really going to miss them again this year,” says Killilea.
Big retail experiences
Killilea says city traders could be boosted if there was a relaxation of some planning red tape. This strategy has already been employed in the west end of London by Westminster City Council.
Jayce Tyrrell, the chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents businesses in the area, says the local authority has been “very flexible in its approach” there. Change of use from retail to hospitality, or even vice versa, is now easier to obtain than before, which provides for greater diversity of outlets and makes the overall area more attractive to visitors.
“To survive, areas such as the West End also need more big retail experiences. Just look at the Adidas store on Oxford Street. They have created the model. This is the kind of thing that has been happening in other cities such as Tokyo or cities in South Korea, and we’ve based many of our ideas on them.”
The sprawling Adidas store includes about 100 digital touchpoints for shoppers. They can even order different sizes from the stockroom via interactive changing room mirrors. It also includes a footwear Running Lab for shoppers to test out the merchandise on treadmills.
But even among the glitz of the West End of London, there is a realisation that attracting more independent retailers, as opposed to multinational brands, will play a critical role as the area strives for revival in coming years. Tyrrell says the aim is to vastly increase the proportion of independent stores in the area to about 30 per cent. It is currently in single figures.
Back in Dublin, Guiney says the city already has a successful model for promoting independent retailing. Just over a decade ago, as the last existential economic crisis battered the city, Dublin Town worked with local businesses on South William Street and the surrounding lanes to rebrand it as the Creative Quarter.
“We started marketing it as a cool place to open a shop. It resulted in lots of independent shops and there were pop-up stores everywhere. The vacancy rate went from about 25 per cent in 2010 to virtually nothing a couple of years later. That could provide a template for other retail areas of the city.”
Three ways to revive retail in Dublin city
1. Change of use
Ease the planning processes for change of use on city centre commercial properties, to facilitate a greater mix of traders between retail and hospitality. City advocates such as Dublin Town say a greater mix will boost footfall, which will benefit the city’s retailers in the long run.
2. Get independent
Aim to replicate the success of the Creative Quarter, which covers the area around South William Street and Drury Street, in other areas of the city. During the last crash, the area was marketed to independent retailers and attracted many pop-ups and other stores that provided a counter balance to the brand-heavy shopping districts nearby.
3. Break up the biggies
Prior to the pandemic, the north side of the city centre struggled to maintain the same footfall as the south side, due to a dearth of hospitality options. The north side was also hit harder by the recent departures of UK high street retailers with large premises, such as Debenhams on Henry Street. Encourage landlords to break these large single stores into smaller units with a greater mix of tenants.
The online version of this article was edited at 13.49 on January 31st to correct a misattributed quotation