Sunday 11 December 2016

Why out-of-date Clerys simply ran out of borrowed time

After surviving war, revolution and recession for the past 162 years, Clerys was finally laid low by a combination of geography and changing consumer preferences

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

While it is hard not to sympathise with the fate of the 130 Clerys workers and the 330 staff from the 49 retail concessions, last week’s dramatic events were the culmination of a decades-long decline
While it is hard not to sympathise with the fate of the 130 Clerys workers and the 330 staff from the 49 retail concessions, last week’s dramatic events were the culmination of a decades-long decline

He axe came down on Clerys at 5.30pm on Friday, June 12, when its new owners put the iconic Dublin retailer into liquidation. After decades of decline, which saw it steadily lose custom to more innovative competitors, it has finally closed and seems unlikely to re-open in its existing form.

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Media coverage of the Clerys closure has (not unnaturally) focused on the ruthless manner in which the axe fell on the venerable retailing institution, with staff and concession holders being summoned to a hastily convened meeting only to be told that the retail operation had been placed in liquidation and was closing with immediate effect.

Even by the sometimes callous nature of these events, this was unusually brutal - and it immediately ignited a political and media firestorm. However, while it is hard not to sympathise with the fate of the 130 Clerys' workers and the 330 staff employed by the 49 retail concessions that operated from the store, the dramatic events of June 12 were the culmination of a decades-long decline.

In the immediate aftermath of the closure we were treated to the usual nostalgic guff of how beloved Clerys was of Dubliners and how it was somehow part of the fabric of the city.

Unfortunately while most Dubliners may have had a soft spot for Clerys, it didn't extend to them actually wanting to shop there.

The traditional 19th Century department stores, which sold everything to everyone, have increasingly become an anachronism in the era of big chains, specialist retailers and on-line shopping. On the basis that if you can't beat them you must join them instead, the department stores have tried to compete by attracting desirable brands and concessions - over 70pc of those working in the Clerys store at the time it closed were employed by concessions rather than by Clerys itself.

Even concessions haven't been enough to stem the retail tide. One by one, the traditional stand-alone department stores have fallen by the wayside. In Dublin, McBirney's on Aston Quay closed its doors in 1984 while Frawley's of Thomas Street shut for the last time in 2007. Kelly's, a fixture of the Waterford retailing scene for more than a century-and-a-half, threw in the towel in 2013.

Even Roches Stores - for decades the 800lb gorilla among Irish department stores - gave up the ghost when its owners, the Roche family, decided they preferred being landlords to retailers and sold their retailing business to UK chain Debenhams in 2006.

Even before the latest twist Clerys had had several brushes with mortality. A two-month strike in 1983 came within a hair's breadth of closing the retailer. In truth, Clerys never fully recovered from the damage inflicted by the strike - and it fell further and further behind its northside rival Arnotts.

Arnotts widened its lead over Clerys when it completed a major redevelopment in the early 1990s which increased the size of its Henry Street store to a massive 320,000 square feet. Arnotts also aggressively targeted more up-market concessions and brands so as to attract more affluent shoppers.

"Department stores needed to be bigger in order to attract customers. And Arnotts got bigger sooner," says one veteran retailer.

Clerys spent €22m on a store-wide refurbishment in the early noughties. This was followed by a further €25m investment as Clerys purchased neighbouring properties with a view to expanding the O'Connell Street store. Unfortunately these investments failed to do the trick - but left Clerys with a legacy of debt that was ultimately to prove fatal.

In September 2012, Bank of Ireland, which was owed €29m, appointed receivers to Clerys, seizing control of the retailer from the Guiney family (see panel). Bank of Ireland immediately sold Clerys to US investment firm Gordon Brothers for an estimated €16m. Nine days ago, Gordon Brothers sold Clerys to Natrium for a reputed €29m, almost doubling its money in less than three years.

So could Clerys, and the almost 500 jobs that depended on the retailer, have been saved? Was there anything that the store and its owners could have done that might have resulted in a different, more benign, outcome?

Quite apart from the rise and rise of the chains and on-line shopping, Clerys also laboured under another enormous handicap: its location.

What was once Dublin's premier thoroughfare has fallen on hard times in recent years. Most of the original retailers have long since been replaced by fast-food outlets while the presence of four drug treatment centres within walking distance of Connell Street has done nothing for the ambience.

Clerys also had the misfortune of being literally on the wrong side of O'Connell Street. Footfall on the opposite side, the western side, is at least twice as much. Just for good measure the site of the former Carlton Cinema, almost directly across the street from Clerys, has lain derelict for over 20 years.

One retailing analyst compares O'Connell Street to Chicago's State Street. Once the windy city's premier shopping destination - with no fewer than eight department stores as recently as 1974 - it now has precisely none.

At the same time as O'Connell Street was falling on hard times, Dublin city centre was facing ever greater competition from huge out-of-town shopping centres - Blanchardstown, Liffey Valley, Tallaght, and most lethal of all, Dundrum.

It was the need to compete with Dundrum, built in 2005, that forced both Arnotts and Clerys to spend huge amounts of borrowed money on acquiring neighbouring sites to allow them to further expand their stores.

This debt-fuelled expansion at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom was to prove disastrous for both Clerys and Arnotts. In 2010, the former Anglo Irish Bank took control of Arnotts, which had splurged an estimated quarter of a billion euro on in its 'Northern Quarter' redevelopment scheme. BoI took control of Clerys two years later.

The difference between the two companies was that Arnotts' core retailing operation was in a much healthier condition.

"There was a vision for Arnotts. That vision was backed by investment, so it was able to attract the better brands and concessions. Clerys seemed to be running on vapour at the end," observes David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland.

The numbers don't lie. While Clerys had annual sales of just €25m a year - less than €500,000 per week - Arnotts' sales are almost five times greater, at €120m or €2.4m a week. In this battle of the northside department stores, Arnotts was always going to be the last giant standing.

Now that it has finally closed, Clerys - which first opened for business in 1853 and was completely rebuilt after its destruction in the 1916 Rising - is unlikely to re-open again in anything like its current form. If it was to survive as a purely retail outlet then it needed to be bought by one of the major UK retail chains such as John Lewis or House of Fraser. However, there were no such takers at the time of the 2012 receivership - something which almost certainly tells its own story.

New owners Natrium have now announced plans for a "predominately retail-led development encompassing other commercial uses" of the building. According to Natrium: "The Clerys building can be transformed to create a major new mixed-use destination in Dublin city centre and create large numbers of sustainable jobs".

That sounds suspiciously like a mall, housing smaller, specialist shops on the ground floor with a hotel on the upper floors. If that does indeed prove to the case then Clerys' will never re-open as a department store - Natrium's reference to "the necessary closure of the department store" reinforces this suspicion.

While Natrium has certainly done itself no favours over the past nine days, it was merely the instrument - rather than the cause of Clerys' demise. With an obsolete retail format, Clerys was already living on borrowed time. And that time finally ran out at 5.30pm on Friday, June 12.

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