Well anchored for economic storms

WHEN the going gets tough, the really tough go ...shopping?

No, not really, the Irish retail sector is pretty much in tatters, but there are notable exceptions, driven mostly by value-keen and budget-conscious buyers.

We’ve taken a shift to the east, embracing the Germans discount retailers with gusto and they are some of the very few major retail firms still actively expanding in Ireland.

Irish shoppers demand – in fact badly need - better value, and after a decade of profligate spending and consumerism we’ve pulled in the belt a few uncomfortable notches.

Case in point is the roaring success that Wilton Shopping Centre has become since the downturn, which pretty much followed the arrival of Penneys, replacing Roches Stores. At one time back in 2006, there was a consumer push for Marks and Spencer to take over the 50,000 sq ft Cork store vacated by the now sadly defunct Roches Stores. As it turned out, Penneys was bang on the money for the tough times that followed.

Wilton’s owner, the publicity-shy Joe O’Donovan put the centre up for sale a few years ago, seeking €285 million, having bought out Howard Holdings’ share after their joint 2004 €124m purchase.

Just last month, O’Donovan (who also owns the mothballed Capitol Cinema redevelopment site and now-eyesight) sought planning permission to largely knock the entire complex (minus Tesco and a dozen other stores) and to redevelop it, to include hotel, cinema and a way more shops. Celtic Tiger Mark 11?

He’s seeking, in a way, to do what the Love family have started across Cork city’s suburbs in Douglas, where they redeveloped the early 1970s centre. Loves’ Shipton Group is still hoping to lure in Marks and Spencers to the revamped Douglas Village Shopping Centre. Will M&S bite, or will it be a more recession-friendly operator? Penneys, or Pfennigs, from heaven?

Only two shopping centres opened in Ireland in 2009 (see separate retail feature this issue) and the complete trend-bucker was Opera Lane in Cork city, on a site replacing the former Irish Examiner office and other businesses across two city blocks. By this month, and against the run of play for the last two years, agents Savills had managed to get the place 80% occupied for developer Owen O’Callaghan. They also let some 55 overhead apartments, on a network of streets that previously only had one resident.

Opera Lane, aka Faulkener’s Lane, butted up against a new showpiece or flagship Dunnes Stores: between them, and allied to massive street improvements by City Council, the three city blocks have successfully re-anchored Cork city centre’s retail draw for the difficult decade ahead.

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