Dunnes Stores: the radical transformation of an Irish retail giant

The way Margaret Heffernan has reinvented Dunnes Stores as an upmarket rather than downmarket destination has been shrewd and swift

Dunnes Stores have delivered a cool modern look. A far cry from pile pile “ ’em high and sell ‘em cheap”.

Dunnes Stores have delivered a cool modern look. A far cry from pile pile “ ’em high and sell ‘em cheap”.

 

The arrival next Thursday of Peter O’Brien’s debut collection for Dunnes Stores, the first haute couturier to join the store’s stable of Irish designers, consolidates chief executive Margaret Heffernan’s strategy of bringing the retail giant upmarket.

Dunnes Stores supremo Margaret Heffernan has moved the multiple in a new direction. Photograph: The Irish Times
Dunnes Stores supremo Margaret Heffernan has moved the multiple in a new direction. Photograph: The Irish Times

It’s a far cry from the pile “em high and sell ‘em cheap” formula created by her father, but she and her daughter Ann, a doctor, and niece Sharon McMahon, a lawyer – the female trinity at the helm of this powerful ship – are steadily turning it around in quite another direction. It’s a transformation aimed at capturing a new generation who are more socially mobile, discerning and more travelled than that of their parents.

Facing off the phenomenal growth of Penneys in low-cost clothing and German grocery discounters Aldi and Lidl, Heffernan’s transformation of Dunnes as an upmarket rather than downmarket destination has been shrewd.

Red flounce coat, €370; slingback patent shoes, €145
Red flounce coat, €370; slingback patent shoes, €145

A recent visit to the flagship in Cornelscourt was dramatic evidence of the shift. This massive, spruced-up space – bright, spacious and stylishly merchandised – is impressive, its interiors the work of Italian international store design company Schweitzer. Schweitzer has worked on many big European projects for high-profile clients including Armani and MaxMara in Italy, Carrefour and Galeries Lafayette in France along with Burberry and Ralph Lauren.

Engaging them to create a cool modern look with eye-catching mannequins and good lighting was a major visual change to the store environment allowing better presentations of everything from food to fashion and interiors. The day of the visit, the only jarring notes were the loud airport-style public speaker announcements reminiscent of former downmarket days.

Pleat sleeve shirt, €110; pleat skirt, €145
Pleat sleeve shirt, €110; pleat skirt, €145

If the food standards have been an outstanding success – making Dunnes the largest-selling grocery retailer in Ireland – so has the refocusing of the fashion on offer and the championing of Irish design talent.

Under Heffernan’s hand, moving Dunnes in a new direction started with the introduction of Spanish company Savida in the 1990s, though later collaborations with Twiggy on a bedlinen range and Michelle Mone’s lingerie were not so enduring. At one point Heffernan’s interest in fashion led her to open an upmarket Rive Gauche (Yves St Laurent) boutique in Molesworth Street which closed in 1992.

The introduction of Paul Costelloe in the early 2000s fast forwarded the move upwards and the appointment of Carolyn Donnelly as creative director propelled further collaborations with Irish designers, such as Leigh Tucker with her Willow children’s wear range, Helen James with her Considered range, Joanne Hynes, Lennon Courtney and more recently Michael Mortell.

Silk scarf with Peter O’Brien drawings, €85; red coat, €370
Silk scarf with Peter O’Brien drawings, €85; red coat, €370

Celebrity endorsements with Paul Galvin in menswear, Nevin Maguire in food and Francis Brennan in interiors followed trends elsewhere. “They can afford to go after the best and support them and to take chances,” commented an industry insider. “These are small, exclusive ranges and not watered down. And notice that Dunnes never have sales.”

Peter O Brien was contacted directly by Margaret Heffernan a year ago: “We hit it off immediately even though it was the first time we met – and a 15-minute meeting turned into two hours. She has been incredibly supportive.” He adds that it is “a nightmare for designers to go out on their own and Dunnes have taken the pain out of [manufacturing] and kept the quality”.

Red flounce-back top, €110; high-waisted trousers, €150, slingback patent shoes, €145
Red flounce-back top, €110; high-waisted trousers, €150, slingback patent shoes, €145

The new collection – five coats (from €350-€370) in his familiar palette of navy, black and white, with one a popular fit and flare and others in orange and red, is well priced for the quality of the materials – double crepe, wool Melton, heavy cotton poplin, moss crepe, grosgrain and grain de poudre. There is also a pair of oxblood patent stilettos (€145) and a range of silk scarves from €85 – good Christmas presents. New this season are more structured shapes and stiff standaway flounces.

Flounce-hem top €110, pleat-sleeve shirt (worn under top) €110
Flounce-hem top €110, pleat-sleeve shirt (worn under top) €110

The O Brien collection is exclusive to three Dunnes Stores, from Thursday, October 19th: Cornelscourt, St Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street. However it will also sell online. In championing Irish designers and putting her faith in their commercial clout, Heffernan deserves every credit for that alone.

  • Photography, Sarah Doyle; model, Helena Greyhorse @Models 1; stylist, Catherine Condell assisted by Kitty McLaughlin; hair, Michael Leong, makeup, Zoe Clark. Jewellery Peter O’Brien’s own. Tights by Wolford. With special thanks to the Gate Theatre.
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