Retailers can still thrive if they change with the times

There has been lots of recent media commentary about the death of retail — Debenhams, House of Fraser, Clerys, Sears and the like.

These brands are reported to be the canary in the mine, indicating all other retail will soon die.

The truth is that these brands are not a bellwether of what is facing the retail industry. 

They are simply retailers who did not change with the times and invest in their proposition.

In my role, I get to speak to a lot of retailers each and every day. 

Each phone call is answered with a note of caution and concern.

Is the caller at a point of terminal decline?

At our annual retail retreat in May, I sat back and listened to Blaine Callard, chief executive of Harvey Norman Ireland, expel the myth regarding the death of retail. 

He eloquently explained that retail is not dying, it is simply changing. 

He pointed to how the media interpreted the decline of Toys ‘R’ Us as the death of retail. 

And, yet, Smyths Toys bought the majority of this business and will breathe life and vitality back into its frail retail footprint.

The truth is that bad retail is dying, brilliant retail is alive and well.

To prove the point to myself, one weekend in early September, I studied our extensive membership database. 

The purpose was to step back and review what is really going on.

As I surveyed the membership from Applegreen to Zara, I realised that the vast majority of retailers are alive and well.

Yes, there are issues; our Vat rate is too high, government does not support Ireland’s largest industry enough, town centres need our love and attention, Brexit is a concern. 

But, when all is said and done, there are many many retailers who will continue to live, breathe and thrive.

The following Monday morning I phoned Jim Mulqueen, corporate finance partner in Grant Thornton.

I explained that Retail Excellence would like to bring some fast-growing retailers together. 

I wanted to prove that retail was not dead. Jim offered to host a luncheon in the brand-new Grant Thornton Ireland headquarters in Dublin. 

I put down the phone and got to work.

The only rule I had to abide by was that the Grant Thornton boardroom could host a maximum of 40 people, excluding some Grant Thornton and Retail Excellence executives, I had to keep the invitation list to 35 guests.

I went back to the member database and realised we had way more than 35 fast-growing retail members. 

To make my task a little easier, I decided to only include town centre-focused retailers who had exciting growth plans. 

This would tick two boxes, prove retail was alive and well and prove the future of Irish towns is vibrant.

In the interests of balance, it is important to look back on what has been a challenging year. 

The Irish weather certainly didn’t help. 

Three days of store closures in early March as the country was covered in a blanket of snow, heatwaves and hosepipe bans in mid-summer and most recently, the second last Saturday before Christmas was wet and windy.

Worst still was the over-zealous ‘orange’ weather warning issued by Met Éireann which accompanied a standard Irish winter’s day and delivered a 25% decline in footfall nationwide.

Brexit is another big challenge. My biggest concern is for grocers and pharmacists. 

Most buy product, whether tomatoes or medicines, from the UK and all use the UK as a land bridge for imports from continental Europe. 

As I write this piece, we are facing into the black hole of a no-deal.

The growth of online is also a concern for many. 

The fly in the ointment is that we see online as a significant opportunity for the Irish retailer, whether large or small. 

There is no reason why Irish retailers cannot be exporting product all over the world.

We were particularly delighted when, back in October, Enterprise Ireland announced a special online pilot for retailers who want to take on the world online.

Admittedly, it is a small enough amount of money — €1.25m. 

That said, it is a pilot and it is most definitely a very good start.

By the way, the 35 retailers at our lunch plan to open over 200 stores in the next three years. 

Who said Irish retail was dead?

David Fitzsimons, group chief executive, Retail Excellence

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