Grafton Street: ‘It’s like a ghost town’

Ireland’s premier shopping street is a grim reflection of the situation facing retailers

"I haven't heard an American accent this year. There's a few British over. That's about it." Patrick Flynn is whiling away the morning in his jarvey cab, parked at the top of Grafton Street. His dog, Del Boy, is sleeping on his lap. This summer, business has been reliant on "Irish people up from the country just for the day".

How many trips are they averaging each day at the moment? “Some days none,” says Davy, another driver, who has joined Flynn in the cab. “The only reason we’re here is just to give the horse a stretch, and just get a bit of a price of feeding it. It’s going to be tough. It’s time to batten the hatches,” says Flynn.

If I’d come to them a year ago, especially on a sunny day, they wouldn’t have had time to stop and chat. “We’d have been flying,” says Flynn glumly. “Flying,” Davy agrees.

Like many other businesses on Ireland’s premier shopping street, they’re now offering discounts. “It’s €20 round the park; a half an hour is €30 and an hour is €50. It used to be €25, €40 an €80,” says Flynn. “See them all down there with 60, 70 per cent off? This place will be nearly closed up by Christmas. If the virus break outs again, we haven’t got a hope in hell.”

Flynn looks sad. “I’ll have to put the horse out to grass. Nobody is buying them. It’s either that or sell it to the meat factory, one or the other. It’s terrible to say that when something has been loyal to you. But when you’re paying €200 for a stable in the city, you have to decide: are you going to give the man €200, which you haven’t got, or put the horse down?”

A walk down Grafton Street paints a grim picture of the situation facing retailers, seven weeks into reopening. This is a summer sale season like no other. There's 50 per cent off in United Colors of Benetton. Likewise at Disney, North Face and Ted Baker. The Monsoon store is gone, the windows in the ornate redbrick facade boarded up with plywood sheeting. Next door, there's up to 70 per cent off at Massimo Dutti. Final reductions being offered at Levi's. Up to 40 per cent off at Hugo Boss; 50 per cent off at Carroll's; 60 per cent at Dune. The Seasons of Ireland tourist shop store has gone too.

On and on it goes: 30 per cent off at The White Company; 50 per cent at Diesel; up to 25 per cent at Thomas Patrick Shoes; 60 per cent at Carl Scarpa; up to 75 per cent at Claire's. Pamela Scott is offering 50 per cent off. Aldo has a liquidation sale. Pandora is selling three items of jewellery for the price of two. At Marks & Spencer, it's 50 per cent off; 60 per cent at Brown Thomas; 50 per cent at Tommy Hilfiger and Swarovski Crystal. Cath Kidston has shut down. Near the Trinity College end of the street, a phone shop is shuttered up. So is Claddagh Jewellers and House of Ireland. Bewley's is still shut, but the cafe's operators have said they intend to reopen if their offer of rent arrears is accepted.

Even the flower sellers, a Grafton Street landmark, are gone. According to Dublin City Council, they were given permission to take up their pitches in June, but decided not to.

Back up near the Stephen's Green end of the street, Robert McCormack, who owns the family run McCormacks Celtic Jewellery, surveys the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. "My business has collapsed," he says. In normal times, €25 sterling silver Claddagh rings fly out of the shop set up by his father and uncle 56 years ago. Now, he estimates sales are down by about 90 per cent.

McCormack managed to keep paying half the rent during lockdown, but says the landlord is looking for the balance by August. Even with the €10,000 business restart grant, he’s struggling to see how he can keep going. “This year is gone. Hopefully we get a vaccine and the Americans start travelling again.”

I'm battling on. It is what it is for everyone

His second business, in Killarney, has been just as badly affected. “They’re both down exactly the same. Nobody here is doing any business.”

How many sales would he make a day at the moment? “Four or five.” A year ago, it would have been 40 to 50.

How is his state of mind? He laughs, and then goes quiet. “I’m battling on. It is what it is for everyone.”

Grafton Street occupies an almost mythological position in the cultural, social and economic life of Ireland. There’s a collective intake of breath – equal parts outrage and pride – whenever it ranks among the lists of the world’s most expensive streets. But even before the Covid-19 pandemic, high streets everywhere were struggling against competition from online, and Grafton Street was no exception.

What the pandemic has done, says Richard Guiney, chief executive of Dublin Town, "is accelerate a lot of the trends that we had begun to see anyway. But whereas we talked about these trends materialising over five to 10 years, we're seeing them happen over five to 10 months."

What are those trends? “People were buying less material goods, and were spending more money on experiences.”

Forecasters internationally were predicting that this could even be a good year for the high street, that people would begin to return to city centres instead of out-of-town retailers or online shopping, to dine out, have coffee and shop. Guiney says that “Dublin city, like many other cities, has been regaining retail market share for a number of years, albeit in a declining market.”

Streets with a better mix of bars, restaurants and retail did better than streets with retail alone: in Dublin, this meant South Great George’s Street was outperforming Grafton Street in footfall.

And then Covid-19 hit, and the footfall vanished. Now the question is how bad things will get for Grafton Street? When we finally emerge from the shadow of Covid, what will be left of our main streets?

Across Dublin city centre, “the footfall last week was 51 per cent of what it was during the same week in 2019”, says Guiney.

“Sales are running at less than half, depending on what sector you’re in. Obviously if you’re tourist-facing, you’re in real trouble. Everywhere is struggling. The night-time economy is struggling more. From 6pm, the decline in footfall becomes quite sharp.”

But the large number of sales is not necessarily the ominous sign it seems, he says. This year, summer sales started later and retailers have more stock to shift. He’s still optimistic, particularly if a vaccine emerges quickly, that “this time next year, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel”.

It's a case of how long you can sustain it for

I tell him that on Morning Ireland on the day we meet, the World Health Organization's Dr David Nabarro warned that it could be 2½ years before a vaccine is widely available.

In that case, he says, the picture would be a lot bleaker. “If you’re doing 45 per cent to 55 per cent of your previous turnover, you’re not going to make ends meet. Everybody at that level is losing money. It’s a case of how long you can sustain it for. We do know that there will be closures probably in September. A lot of businesses will give it until Christmas.”

In the short term, he would like to see an increase in public transport to encourage more people to come into city centres. And he is eager to see people returning to their offices, even one or two days a week. “The rule of thumb is if you hit a vacancy rate of 25 per cent, when one in four units closes, that’s the point at which people go, I’m not going there.”

Though there are a few units closed on Grafton Street, some since before the pandemic hit, it’s a long way off that kind of vacancy rate. Today, the weather is good, and as the day goes on, the crowds slowly start to build up. By 2pm, it looks to be close to almost normal levels of footfall. But not many people on the street are carrying bags. There are no obvious tourists, nobody out on their lunch break. Instead, there are lots of young people and families out for a stroll.

A few shops in the area are bucking the overall trend, and seem busy throughout the day, particularly those catering to younger shoppers. Zara, on nearby South King Street, is very busy. Most shops on Grafton Street have a sign outside telling customers masks must be worn; some, like the Disney store, are handing surgical ones out to everyone over 10. But in Zara, there’s nobody standing at the door obviously checking numbers or advising on masks, and inside, several customers are not wearing them. I don’t stay long.

Just one shop on Grafton Street is attracting an all-day queue when I visit, the Victoria's Secret lingerie store. It opened in December 2017 at a rent of €1.85 million per year, which cannot look like a very good deal now. Still, the shoppers are coming. "It's the quality and the design," says Alice Geoghegan, who is queueing outside with her friend Niamh Newman. And there are good deals on underwear, she says, such as five pairs of knickers for €35.

“Let’s be honest. It’s the label more than anything,” says Newman, who’s planning to buy some leggings. “I can’t walk by without going in and buying something.”

Inside the dimly-lit store, a sign says that fitting rooms are closed: “See an associate to learn more about our verbal bra fit experience.” I watch as one young woman has a “verbal bra fit experience”. It seems to involve her holding the bra in her hands, as an assistant asks whether it feels too big.

Across the street in Brown Thomas, the beauty department is busy. The designer bags hall, which is offering discounts of up to 60 per cent, is quieter. Upstairs, there are a few women browsing the carefully spaced out racks of designer wear, also at up to 60 per cent off.

A soothing, regular announcement over the tannoy reminds shoppers to use hand sanitiser, keep two metres from others and reassures them that “our store is thoroughly cleaned every day”. On the third floor, a tasteful display of fabric masks, €25 soap dispenser and €14 Irish-made sanitiser greets shoppers coming off the escalator. A nearby display is offering personalised champagne bottles.

Footfall is down here, as it is everywhere in the city, says Martina Riches, the general manager of Brown Thomas Dublin. "We're no different to anybody else on the street. It's a very challenging environment to be in at the moment."

But the decline in footfall has helped social distancing. “We’re seeing people coming in at different times. We’re not getting that big rush that we normally have between two and four.” The store’s management all have an app on their phone telling them how many customers are in store at any time.

A few departments are doing particularly well – beauty, skincare, homewares, and wearable tech. She suspects that people are wearing more, not less, make-up because “with masks, you’re almost wanting to be more glam when you take it off.” And “we’re selling lots of candles. I think people are wanting to treat themselves after a really difficult time.”

This is an amazing street, it has amazing businesses on it

Overall, Riches says, “the browsing elements of shopping is diminishing . . . we’re definitely seeing that customers have a mission when they come to town, and that ultimately will increase your conversion.”

If we are in the same position in a year’s time – still in the grip of a pandemic, with public health advice continuing to make international travel problematic, and no widely available treatment or vaccine – “I think of all shopping areas, Grafton Street specifically will have an incredibly challenging environment. [We need to be] always moving forward and reinventing ourselves for the current time. The only thing we can do as retailers on Grafton Street is give the customer an amazing time when they’re here. This is an amazing street. It has amazing businesses on it.”

If Grafton Street is a bellwether for trends in retail nationally, there are at least a few glimmers of optimism in some sectors. In Weir & Sons, director Chris Andrew – whose family has run the store since 1869 – acknowledges footfall is down here, as it is everywhere. However, business is up overall on a year ago. "There's a lot less footfall, but the people who are coming in are all coming in with a reason. So your conversion rate is way up."

There are no tourists, but “people are spending at the moment; it hasn’t evaporated. The funny thing is, we’re seeing engagement rings are way up. We’re selling roughly double the amount of engagement rings that we sold in July last year. That’s partly people who got engaged during Covid. Maybe it’s a little bit of people who would have got engaged abroad now getting engaged at home. And maybe there’s a little bit of, ‘we came through Covid, let’s get engaged’. Maybe they’re thinking if we can get through this, it’s a sign.”

Still, he’s taking nothing for granted. “That’s one of the funny quirks of our business, but God knows what’s coming next month.”

The prediction that people will continue to seek out unique retail experiences and support Irish businesses are what Sonia Reynolds, and her business partner Frances Duff, are banking on. Their store, Stable of Ireland, which sells high-end, Irish-made linens, tweeds and Aran sweaters, is located just off Grafton Street at the entrance to the Westbury Mall.

They've weathered the Covid storm by adapting, moving more of their business online. "We're just small enough that we can sort of adapt," says Reynolds.

“One really nice thing that we’ve noticed is that Irish customers are recognising the need to support local, which is amazing. They’re purposefully coming in to support an Irish business,” says Duff.

“We’re very positive. And we’re going to stay in that space, because that’s a really good space to be in. We’ve had a really good three weeks. We had one of our best weekends last weekend.”

Back on Grafton Street, Alan O’Shea is meeting a friend for coffee. He’s been coming into town as often as he can since it reopened. “It’s sad. It’s like a ghost town. Shops have very little stock. It’s just not the same. I love the city, but I can’t see it ever buzzing again, even at Christmas time.”

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