`I'm just going to the corner shop for a bottle of Beaujolais'

 

Where 10 years ago much of Dublin city centre was dead after dark, as the shoppers and workers went home to the suburbs, these days it's just swinging into its own as the same workers and shoppers come home to the apartments which have sprung up in the inner city. And a quick bit of shopping - whether it be for the pint of milk or the pair of tights - is what most will do at least three or four nights a week on their way home. Not to mention the odd emergency trip for ice-cream to go with the movie they've rented from the local video store. Ordinary, everyday things that ordinary, everyday people in any community need. The corner shop is as much at the heart of the city community as the family-run pub, but its role is rapidly changing. In modern vernacular, the "convenience store", is as likely to be selling Beaujolais as batch loaf - but people still depend on these outlets for the basics. And where there is a significant growth in the population, the convenience store is sure to follow.

Between 1971 and 1991, the resident population of the area in Dublin between the canals fell by 55,000 from 131,500 to 76,500. With the demise of a vibrant local population came an inevitable slump in local retailing, particularly in the north inner city, around the quays and Dorset Street. Since urban renewal tax breaks were introduced in 1986, however, between 40 and 50 apartment developments have been completed, changing the face of former rundown areas such as the City Quays, Christchurch, Gardiner Street and Mountjoy Square. Between 1991 and 1996, the population of the north inner-city increased from 38,700 to 43,600, while that of the south inner-city grew from 37,800 to 46,100. In other words, the population between the canals has increased by over 10,000, to 86,800 in five years. And it is continuing to grow.

And as Declan Martin of Dublin Chamber of Commerce points out, the new resident population is largely made up of young, single professionals - the "cash-rich and time-poor" as Aidan Morrison, marketing director of BWG Foods Ltd calls them.

These, says Mr Martin, will pay the "extra few bob" more than they would perhaps spend in a large supermarket for the convenience of getting a few items quickly. At the same time, these apartment blocks have spawned a quarter of a million square feet of new retailing space. According to Michael Campbell of RGDATA, the traders' organisation, at least 12 new convenience stores have opened in Dublin's city centre. An apartment block would hardly seem complete these days without a nearby video-rental store, a drycleaners/launderette and convenience store. BWG Foods Ltd, which holds the franchise for Spar, Mace, Wisebuy and Family Value has, for example, seen the number of Spar outlets in Dublin double since 1993 to 90 shops. It is by far its biggest growth area.

"Spar in Ireland is growing at a faster rate than Spar internationally," says Mr Morrison. Spar is the world's largest supermarket chain with 18,744 stores in 28 countries.

"Location," he continues, "is a key factor in any retailing, and with food retailing, it is obviously essential to be convenient to your customers. Apartment developments represent a concentration of customers with food needs so they are of obvious interest to Spar."

Dublin Corporation says it has no strategy that stipulates that new residences should be serviced with convenient shops. "Shops go up in response to a demand," says Michael Reynolds, Dublin Corporation's senior planner for the inner city. "There is a very wide range of sites for apartments," he explained, "which range from the exclusively residential to the semi-commercial".

For instance, "in High Street and Cornmarket, there is a lot of shopping and commercial space at ground floor level. Bachelor's Walk would also be seen as unsuitable for residential use at ground floor level, while up in Brunswick Street you wouldn't find shops at ground level." While the shops obviously benefit from the custom of the local community, he says, they do give back in that they are an essential link in the chain of services which sustains a community. "People should be within walking distance of shops," he says.

Further, many of the shops are located in previously derelict or vacant commercial sites, where a shop may have existed but closed down when the local population was moved from the inner-city.

Clearly they are different shops, no longer the musty outlet selling hard sweets from giant glass jars behind the counter. Some might say that with all that fluorescent lighting and generic display fridges, the shops lack character, that each is a bland, brand formula run by a faceless conglomerate.

However, Mr Campbell would argue that in the majority of cases the shop is run by an independent individual who operates the shop under the SPAR, Londis, Centra or whichever retail branding.

"Retailers make contact with BWG Foods to discuss all aspects of becoming Spar retail stores. And stock lines etcetera are tailored to the location of each shop. So they are family-run and responsive to the local customer. And people don't have time these days to find their way around an interesting little shop with character all its own. They have to be able to know instinctively where to head for for the butter or the can of beans or whatever, and get in and out quickly," says Mr Morrison.

The corner shop has changed, but so has the customer, he concludes.