Dunnes targets millennials with low-maintenance gardens

Coffee and plants? Diarmuid Gavin is on board with the new ‘experiential retailing’

Diarmuid Gavin, with sample of the franchise which will be on sale in Dunnes. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Diarmuid Gavin, with sample of the franchise which will be on sale in Dunnes. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

A vinyl recording of Marvin Gaye is playing on a 1970s turntable as baristas dispense coffee to shoppers browsing succulents in a shop on the site of a former slaughter house on Dublin’s South Great George’s St.

Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is projected on to the back wall while model Holly Carpenter points her phone at cacti and mother-in-law’s tongues before adding the footage to her Insta-stories. Diarmuid Gavin sips a cappuccino.

This is Dunnes Stores as it has never been before, and as Marvin wonders “what’s goin on?” in the background, Pricewatch finds itself asking the very same question.

What is going on is that Dunnes has formed an unlikely alliance with gardener Diarmuid Gavin and opened a shop selling excellent coffee and high-end looking plants at bargain prices in order to attract a mix of green-fingered older folk with a keen eye on the price and a younger cohort who might live in spaces unspoiled by anything as lavish as a garden.

Marvelled

He came up with the idea while on a trip to New York where he found himself staying over a plant shop run by the very on-trend Japanese plant artist Satoshi Kawamoto. As he marvelled at the age profile of the people drawn to the shop, he wondered if he could make that happen closer to home.

He came across a piece of research which told him that five of the six million Americans who took up gardening in 2016 were millennials and that planted the seed a bit deeper. He drew up a pitch when he got back to Ireland and called Anne Heffernan, the daughter of Margaret Heffernan, the Doyen of Dunnes Stores.

Margaret Heffernan and her brother Frank Dunne have controlled the retail chain set up by their dad for decades although a third generation of the family, including Anne and Margaret’s niece Sharon McMahon are taking more and more of the responsibility with the former recently appointed to the board of all the Dunnes companies.

The younger Heffernan was interested in what Gavin had to say. “Young people can’t afford houses with big gardens or even any gardens and they’re working too hard and too long every day to have pets which makes plants an obvious avenue to explore and I think that is why Dunnes immediately said yes to the idea.”

After they agreed to the concept of Gavin’s Garden Lab in principal, he started introducing layers. “I said I’d love a coffee shop in the space and they said yes to that. And then I said I’d love to have vinyl records playing as well and they said yes to that.”

A willingness to buy in fully should not have come as much of a surprise to Gavin had he done his homework on retail trends in Ireland in recent years. Dunnes has been nothing if not accommodating to innovative ideas and tie-ups in recent times, and it has come a long way since better value beat them all.

It has given floor space to Brendan Courtney and Sonya Lennon’s range of clothes and brought Carolyn Donnelly and Paul Costelloe under its wing. Designer Helen James has produced a range of homewares for the store and it has done deals with hotelier and television presenter Francis Brennan and golfer Pádraig Harrington.

Experiential retailing

As the retail giant’s moves more and more into experiential retailing the garden was the obvious place to go although it probably would have taken someone with the drive of Gavin to take it there with such affect.

For more than three years experiential shopping has been a buzz work in retail as shops all over the world look to hold back the online shopping tide. It is a fancy word for a simple concept which turns the physical act of spending money into more than handing over cash in exchange for goods and services. The retail space becomes a destination worth visiting in and of itself allowing people to browse in comfort and then, if they are so inclined, buy in store or go home and shop online.

Dunnes Stores recognised the shift in shopper behaviour faster than many of its peers, and in recent years has dedicated less space to products in store and made its shops a more enjoyable experience. These digital natives do much of their research online and know how much things cost, so if they are going to be convinced to shop in actual rather than virtual shops, they want a bit more.

Gavin says shops need to reinvent themselves and become important in the lives of their would-be customers. “The UK has been decimated in terms of retail in recent years and I think shops like Dunnes have seen what is happening there and realised that the same things are happening here and will continue to happen unless they do something about it.”

But clothes and shelves are one thing, plants are a different game and require serious maintenance no? Apparently not, not least because there is an app for that now. Or at least there soon will be. In addition to using the new shop to train Dunnes staff whose job it will be to sell the plants, Gavin is also planning an app which will allow the potentially green-fingered to scan the barcodes of the plants they are considering to get detailed care instructions.

‘Fearful’

“I think in the past people have been fearful of growing plants and afraid they might kill them but that has changed, it has even changed in the last year and I think people realise that it can be very easy to look them, you just need to remember a few simple rules,” he says.

“You don’t overwater them, you don’t underwater them, you keep them in a fairly constant temperature and you keep them out of draughts.”

He points to the plant known as a mother-in-law’s tongue, the pointy leaved plant Carpenter was filming earlier and describes it as “utterly indestructible”. And there is Spanish moss which is so low maintenance, it doesn’t even need to soil to stay alive and can feed of the air around it and will live a long and healthy life it is is spritzed to every now and then.

He suggests that plants are a low cost way of transforming a home and bring with them the added “joy of seeing a new leaf coming out or bringing something back to life or keeping it alive.” It is not a joy associated with Ikea flat-pack furniture.

“For a couple of hundred quid you could easily transform your living space,” he says. “And in a much more environmentally aware and I think more and more people get why that matters.”

He refers to Margaret Heffernan repeatedly and exclusively as Mrs Heffernan, and says she has been central to the development of the project which will be rolled out across key Dunnes outlets in the weeks ahead.

“Mrs Heffernan makes every decision and is on top of everything that’s going on. I might get an email 4.30am with a suggestion or two and her instincts are always right. Mrs Heffernan, like a lot of people in Dunnes, is driven to make this perfect so I don’t think I have any option but to get it absolutely right.”

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