Sostrene Grene, the great Danish concept taking flight in Ireland
An Irish family is behind its recent expansion, and we can’t get enough of it
Niall and Heather Lawlor with their daughters, Nora, Shea and Molly.
Sostrene Grene, the Danish lifestyle store specialising in contemporary affordable Nordic homeware, opened its sixth shop in Ireland in August. Established in Aarhus in Denmark in 1973 by Inger Grene and husband Knud Cresten, the name of the company – which translates as Grene Sisters – is based on a concept of two elderly aunts, though neither are Anna nor Clara on which the company’s marketing is based. In 1989 the company expanded into a franchise operation and today has 200 stores around the world.
Now controlled by the next generation, brothers Mikkel and Cresten Grene who work as chief executive and creative director respectively, every shop has a large section of arts, crafts and DIY with classical music playing in the background. It is a sensory experience, and derives from the brothers’ formative education at Steiner schools, which follow a somewhat unorthodox approach to education where emphasis is placed on arts and crafts, nature, and classical music, equal to that placed on academia – allowing children to have an unhurried and creative education.
It’s noticeable in the new South Great George’s Street shop in Dublin that customers whisper to each other and to staff – as if not to disturb the ambience of soft lighting and classical music.
The first Irish shop was opened in 2015 by Niall Lawlor and his wife, Heather. “I had been in retail all my life and after working in Texas for Gamestop [the publicly listed video game company], I was posted to Malmo as managing director of its northern European operation. We visited Denmark quite a bit, and this is where I came upon the concept of Sostrene Grene; every time we visited we bought something, as products were constantly changing, reasonably priced within a very relaxed retail experience. Upon being transferred to run the Gamestop European operation from Dublin, I had looked at other Scandinavian retail brands to take to Ireland, but this was the one that had a backbone based on timeless home interiors and really embraced the Nordic notion of hygge [the Danish concept of cosiness and comfort.]”
One of the biggest challenges Lawlor faced was trying to convince landlords of how the store would operate. “Landlords want a covenant – they need to know that a concept has longevity and funding.” In 2015 he approached Marks and Spencer which had a vacant, but still leased premises in Dún Laoghaire, and offered a third of the rent. By December the shop opened and, according to Lawlor, “we counted [there are customer counters above the door] more than 20,000 customers in the first weekend, so much so that we had to close early on the Sunday as we had run out of stock.”
He describes how “the Danish boots were marching around Dublin the following week” amazed at the trade the company was doing. Lawlor’s is a joint venture rather than a franchise arrangement with the parent Danish company. Soon after, Lawlor left his role at Gamestop to work with Heather in the new business. He set about establishing new outlets for Sostrene Grene, and used the store in Dún Laoghaire to introduce the concept to potential landlords.
“We try to find interesting properties, but need in the region of 300sq m for a unit; we were lucky to get into the old Bedford Row cinema site in Limerick – where the internal backdrop is an historic church. The business community in Limerick were amazing and adopted us immediately, whereas we are still struggling to find sites in Galway and Waterford.”
The new shop on George’s Street [450sq m] is the largest Sostrene Grene shop outside of Denmark, and Lawlor describes how he sat in a coffee shop across the road for two weeks, drinking coffee and counting pedestrian traffic against a stopwatch. “It has paid off, and I am both surprised and delighted that we are meeting our forecasted targets.”
Lawlor recalls the first time he visited the headquarters of the company, which is run from the family home, and where Inger Grene – now in her 80s – was recording videos for YouTube for the DIY section, with her crochet needles.
“I had come from a retail world where we had 7,000 shops and a new one opening every week, it was all about KPIs [key performance indicators on how a company is performing]. Even the base of the company in Denmark had that feeling of family and hygge, and I knew it was what I wanted to bring to Ireland.” After opening six shops here, and with more on the horizon in Ireland, Lawlor has more than 10 family members currently involved in the business.
One of the surprises since the opening of the landmark store on George’s Street has been the number of tourists buying smaller items to take home as gifts – “95 per cent of our customers are female, but international tourists cannot get enough of the craft items, we have also had quite a few restaurants buying the wooden cheese boards [€6.74] and at one stage we had to refuse a restaurant that wanted to buy an entire stock of chairs [€42.98] – as there would be none left for walk-in customers.”
Shopping here is a relaxed experience, the products are not in packaging (in line with the environmental vision of the company) and prices are reasonable. Bags of 80g spices retail for 98c, and 75ml acrylic paints sell for €1.84. There is a lovely selection of ceramics and linens; knitting bowls which keep wool untangled sell for €3.89, and the online DIY section shows how to make everything from headboards to flying angels.
Sostrenegrene.com has stores in Limerick, Athlone, Cork and Dublin (Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin; Blanchardstown, Dublin 15; and South Great George’s Street, Dublin 2)