Bringing an infamous sex offender to the table on the first day of a new job seems like a bad idea, so I lie to my fellow recruits around the table in the cold conference room behind the Arnotts furniture floor.
We’re being inducted into the ways of Ireland’s most enduring department store by a woman called Joy, and the first thing on her agenda is us. Joy wants to know about our favourite shopping experience, an interesting fact about ourselves – and the first record we bought.
It's casual, ice-breaking stuff, but my first record was I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am) by Gary Glitter, someone I'd rather airbrush from my musical history. So when my turn comes, I give Joy my second record instead: Stand and Deliver by Adam and the Ants. Everyone looks at me blankly. I feel old and out of place.
During the sharing session, Jess tells us that this is her first job and Lily says her best shopping experience was right here – the big lick. The interesting thing about Lily is that she was once a Fair City extra. That's trumped by Rafael, who served both Gary Barlow and Madonna when they came to into his last shop.
No one’s impressed that I once snorkelled 100 metres through a bog in under a minute. (Okay, under five minutes. I lied again.)
After we’ve had our say, Joy has hers. She tells us we’re brilliant because more than 2,000 people applied for jobs at Arnotts last month and we 12 are the chosen ones. “So you’re pretty much the best in Ireland.”
She asks what we hope to get from the job, and those around me murmur things like “self-progression” and “life experience” and “a greater understanding of the retail space”. No one says money. So I’m not the only liar in the room, then.
Joy asks loads of questions. Everyone seems terrified and answers are slow in coming. Excruciatingly slow. “Does anyone know what happened in Dublin in 1916?” she asks. Long pause. “Has anyone heard of James Joyce?” Silence. “Does anyone know what we mean by customer service?” Nada.
I feel sorry for – and infuriated by – my colleagues. They won't get far in this business being this meek. I feel sorrier for Joy; it's a tough crowd. She tells us the pressure's on because "once X Factor starts it's Christmas retail". And Christmas retail really matters: it's when Arnotts records 70 per cent of its annual sales.
There are nervous laughs as we start sharing Arnotts memories. Everyone has one. Several people saw Santa on Henry Street. Two bought communion dresses here and another had her wedding list with the store. Half the room’s school uniforms came in Arnotts bags. Everyone talks about the place with great fondness.
I too have childhood memories of Arnotts. It was a favourite haunt of my parents when we came to Dublin on holidays in the 1970s before Irish people knew what holidays were.
I recall endless days spent being dragged kicking and screaming through what seemed like a dark, low-ceilinged shop of horrors staffed by terrifying Mrs Slocombes. Tantrum breaks only came when I was force-fed Arnotts cafe food instead of the wholesome McDonalds meals I wanted. I must have been a nightmare for my folks.
I keep these memories to myself.
While Arnotts and me had a rocky start to our relationship, I was mostly to blame and I know now it’s part of Ireland’s social fabric and has been since 1843, when George Cannock and Andrew White opened a shop at 14 Henry Street. After five years of tough trading through the Famine, White died and John Arnott walked through the doors and contrived to make the shop his own.
In 1894, a blaze destroyed the place and it was nearly levelled again during the Easter Rising (which happened in 1916, Joy). It had a number of walk-on roles in the revolutionary drama. Countess Markievicz kitted out her Citizens’ Army in the uniform section, and Pádraig Pearse – possibly apocryphally – called in to settle his account before making his last stand in the GPO.
Arnotts has always displayed resilience and a capacity to reinvent itself, but its timing has long been questionable.
It opened in the mid-1840s just before the darkest days in our history, and more than 160 years later borrowed hundreds of millions from Anglo Irish Bank and Ulster Bank to buy up the north inner city right before the worst economic crash in our history.
Its plans for what was to be the Northern Quarter crumbled in 2010 when the banks called time on risky business. But the debts didn’t kill off Arnotts, and it displayed its capacity for reinvention again when a company called Palladian, brought in to tidy up its affairs, gave it a €17 million makeover which included the planting of the Shoe Garden, the brightening of the store and the broadening of its appeal.
With the shop trading strongly, Ulster Bank’s €140 million loan was bought by a company backed by Selfridges, which is owned by Canadian billionaire Galen Weston, the so-called king of shops. Anglo’s €230 million loan was taken by US investment firm Apollo Management.
The Arnotts look
Our induction ends with deportment tips. Joy suggests we spend “10 minutes looking at yourself in the mirror before going into work”. Tattoos must be covered up and beards are only allowed (on the men) if they’re well-maintained. Ripped or frayed clothes are forbidden.
The next day, preened and polished, we take to the shop floor. I start in the basement alongside the TVs. I’m being mentored by Eammon.
"When I started 15 years ago," he recalls, "the only question people asked about televisions was did they have teletext? It's a different world now, with HD, 4K, curved screens and wi-fi. There are some people who don't know what a 4K television is." I look at him blankly. He walks me over to a 4K, which costs more than 2K. It's four times better than High Definition, he says.
Eamonn tells me how things changed overnight after the bubble popped: “Before then women were coming in and thinking nothing of spending €1,500 on TVs as presents for their boyfriends. They were buying on a whim. Those days are gone.”
Things seem slow this morning, though Eamonn tells me we only need a couple of good sales for the day to turn around.
I’ve been on my feet for two hours and can feel the energy sapping through my (polished) shoes. I look for somewhere to sit.
“There’s no sitting, absolutely no sitting,” Eamonn warns. “Sitting is for lunchtime. We work on commission and if we’re sitting we’re not making money.” I sigh.
Eamonn tells me about colour-coded customers. Reds know what they want, they buy it and they leave. “They can come across as aggressive,” he warns. Yellows are timid and let you do the talking. Greens think they know more than you do. Blues are easily led and want more information.
A young woman comes in with her dad. I try to work out their colour. “I want a MacBook air. Fifteen inches,” she states, and stares at me. That’d be red, then.
While I’m fetching her order, a fellow sales assistant hears the pair talking about hard drives. He takes over the sale.
“Is there anything else you need?” he asks innocently. She says she wants a case. He gets her the case but knows she wants more and as they walk towards the till he casually upsells. “How are you fixed for extra storage, by the way? A hard drive, maybe?” It’s not a yes or no question. I’ve been warned against asking yes or no questions. They lead nowhere.
He leads her to the hard drives while I wander towards the white goods with Eammon. “We’re getting a lot of customers asking about low water usage now. That’s new. We have some dishwashers that use 24 litres of water while others get by with six.”
From dishwashers I move to the Christmas shop. I’m not festive but I know more about Christmas than I do about 4K tellies.
A woman approaches me. “How much for that?” she asks, pointing at a snowman entombed in what looks like a glass coffin. I look at the price tag and tell her it’s €60. “Jaysus, I saw the exact same one for sale in Newry for 40,” she says.
“I’m not surprised. That’s always the way,” I say, forgetting for a moment who I’m supposed to be. I remember and tell her to consider the cost of the petrol. She points to her husband, a man so weighed down with shopping bags that I think he’s about to go through the floor. “He has a bus pass so we’d get up and down for nothing.”
She gestures to a fake plastic tree and asks what size box it comes in. I’ve no idea. “About yay big,” I say holding my hands wide. “I’ll take it,” she says. My first sale.
I go get the box, which is a lot bigger than I assumed. Her husband looks worried. To distract them from the ginormous box, I talk nonsense and try to upsell. I point to all the decorations on display and marvel at their cheapness. She’s not buying it. “I’ve been to Niagara. They’ve a Christmas shop open year-round,” she says. “It’s much cheaper there.”
The tree is put through the register and a computer glitch means that a 70 per cent discount attached to it last January is still there.
Without missing a beat, Rachel, my manager, sells it at the lower price. My customer hugs me. She is that delighted. She’ll be talking about the bargain for the rest of her life. And every time she does, Arnotts will come across well. Still, I’m sad that my first sale will actually cost the store money.
To the Wonder
I’m sent to the Wonder wall to get people to sign up to Arnotts’ new loyalty card. It’s beside the Henry Street entrance and it’s cold. Some people I approach are incredibly rude and mute me with their hands. I feel like a chugger.
“You can’t take it personally,” my supervisor, Luke, says when he sees me glowering at the back of one horrible shopper. “The worst thing is when they completely ignore you. That happens a lot and I’m like, ‘I know you can hear me’. To myself, obviously. We can’t ever let customers know we’re annoyed.”
I can’t stop myself eye-rolling. Some people say they already have the Wonder Card. Most are lying, I suspect. Every 10 minutes or so I get someone to fill in the form.
“There’s no catch,” I say. “You get a point for every euro spent, twice that in the beauty parlour and treble on your birthday week. You can track your points online and download an app so you’ll not have to search through your wallet looking for the card.”
I think my patter is amazing, but my sign-up rate suggests otherwise. Five in an hour, and one came after a lovely woman forced her husband to register because she recognised me and was sympathetic over my fall from the stellar heights of afternoon telly to department store floor.
I find myself leaning on the Wonder Desk. This displeases Luke greatly. “No leaning,” he hisses while smiling at passing customers. “There can be absolutely no leaning. Ever.”
I stand to attention. Someone passes. She stops and I convince her to sign up. I show Luke the completed form. He looks at it and then at me. “Now, it would have been really helpful if you’d ticked the boxes allowing us to contact her by email or text. You didn’t, though, which means legally we can’t contact her about our promos.”
The red phone
Four hours in and I’m starting to flag, but lunch/sitting time is a way off and I have to man the tills first. I look at the phone beside my cash register. In bright red letters there’s the extension number for security and the name of a woman.
I ask a co-worker who this Mrs Smith is. She looks at me sketchily. “I don’t know.” She’s clearly lying. I go to another till and there’s Mrs Smith’s name again. I ask a different staff member who she is. “That’s what we have to say if there is an emergency,” she whispers. “We call and ask for Mrs Smith.”
A code! How exciting! But before I can think of a reason to call Mrs Smith I’m whisked off to the Christmas window. Arnotts is going all nostalgic this year.
“The vision started at Christmas World in Frankfurt last January,” Vanessa from the visual display team tells me. The display orders were placed in May and the build started in early October. For Vanessa, Wizard’s wish that it could be Christmas every day is close to coming true.
The staff canteen is old-school. The two lunch options are shepherd’s pie with chips and chilli with chips. They are both amazing, but lunch is short because furniture manager Michael is waiting for me. Apart from him and three salesmen, the floor is deserted.
“We don’t see so many younger couples starting out; they go to Ikea now,” Michael says.” We’re not going to compete on price but we operate in a different market. We will sell you a product that will last a lifetime – longer even – but getting that across is a challenge.”
We’re standing beside the Tempur mattresses. He tells me the memory foam was developed by Nasa for space suits. I kneel on it. “You’ll never test a mattress like that,” he says. “You have to lie on it for at least five minutes.”
I take off my shoes and am on the bed in a heartbeat. “You can’t do that,” he says. “Not when you’re working.”
I end my shift in casual menswear. The staff are young and good-looking but hardly casual. They’re very sales-focused. I’ve been told to sell three pairs of jeans in two hours. I try to charm would-be customers. It doesn’t work. I try blinding them with denim science. No joy. I practically beg someone to buy. Nothing. It’s hard not to get disheartened after so much rejection.
I’ve been standing for nearly 10 hours. Not as long as Arnotts, admittedly. The store is more robust than I am – and much better at picking itself up after setbacks.