The clock that called time on an iconic store, out of step with retail revolution
The end was sudden and brutal, but it's not just stores like Clerys that are getting caught up in the cold wind of change on the high street.
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
Rachel Ray, a consumer trends blogger who worked for a time in Clerys, remembers bringing her grandmother into the department store for a look around. The 83-year-old was singularly unimpressed and complained that the shop was "too old-fashioned".
That just about sums up the problem for a 160-year-old department store that, for a long time, has seemed more like a landmark with an historic clock than an actual place to shop.
Seldom has the closure of a business in Ireland seemed so cruel - both to its workers and the concession holders who have been left out of pocket.
One profitable firm sells its loss-making shop to another viable company, but the business is suddenly shut down in the blink of an eye: concession holders have sold millions of euro worth of goods, but are left unpaid; and workers get no more than statutory redundancy.
It seems callous in the extreme, but once one has wrung one's hands at the cruelty of modern business and its lack of paternalistic care for the wellbeing of employees, one is left with another sobering reality: Clerys has closed because it was not popular with customers.
If an 83-year-old grandmother saw it as old-fashioned, what hope could it possibly have of attracting 20- or 30-something shoppers?
Just as the Irish Press in its final years became a much-loved newspaper that few people wanted to read, Clerys is a much-cherished landmark where few people wanted to shop.
Rachel Ray herself describes the shopping scene in Clerys: "It was like stepping through a time warp - a sort of purgatory of oversized knickers and brightly coloured but 'practical' last-minute grandmother of the bride wedding garments."
Clerys is still intimately associated with December 8, the traditional Christmas shopping day. In its prime, women from the four corners of Ireland thronged its halls. Husbands may have come along in tow reluctantly, but at least they felt comfortable in its less-than-flash jumpers, crisply creased slack and jackets.
Glimpsed through the windows, Clerys presented a somewhat bizarre scene on Tuesday this week. None of the merchandise seemed to have been touched, from neatly arranged cosmetics to Miss Selfridge accessories and mobile phones. They were still lit up as if the store was open.
In the section at the side, there was glistening Waterford Crystal and Belleek china - the sort of wedding presents that fewer young couples possess nowadays. The chandeliers still sparkled inside, as the workers, newly stripped of their livelihoods, stood outside - locked out under the statue of Jim Larkin.
Clerys was one of Europe's oldest department stores, but that was never enough to save a jaded brand from oblivion. When it closed two years ago after a 16-minute flash flood, there were high hopes that a much-need revamp would give it a shot of life. Clerys, it was fondly hoped, would be brought up to date in time for Christmas 2013.
"When they reopened the shop, they went with a 'love Clerys' theme, which tried to appeal to a sense of nostalgia," says Rachel Ray. "But the whole business of meeting under the Clerys clock means nothing to young people."
"I found the whole layout of the store strange. You had Carphone Warehouse concession next to a place selling €500 women's scarves, and next to that, there was cheap make-up. It didn't seem to make any sense."
While failing to reach a younger audience, the shop also did not appeal to the more mature market with old-fashioned high-quality customer service.
The Dublin retail consultant Eddie Shanahan was equally unimpressed by the revamp after the flood. "There was a lot of hype about it, but it didn't work," says Shanahan, a former marketing director of Clerys' northside rival Arnotts. "When I went into the shop, I didn't find a store directory, so I was wondering around, not knowing where I was going.
"You had a really strange mix of brands in the shop: one brand for 60-year-old might be next to another one aimed at 16-year-old."
Part of the problem for Clerys was its location. As the main thoroughfare of a capital city, O'Connell Street is hardly the most alluring place to be.
"The area is neglected and is not conducive to visiting shoppers," says Eddie Shanahan. "It is a mish mash of poor signage, fast-food joints, and it has been like that for three decades. If you had friends over visiting for the weekend, you wouldn't bring them to O'Connell Street. People associate that area with drug-taking and robbery."
The new owners are, perhaps, pinning their hopes on the arrival of the new Luas line that will connect the area with Grafton Street. The area behind Clerys on Marlborough Street is rundown, but there, the new transport connection will give it a boost. There is speculation that the Clerys building will be used for a new mix of shops, offices and hotels.
Eddie Shanahan is sceptical about the Luas reinvigorating the neighbourhood.
"You are basically opening a tram line to an area with a social problem. It won't be a case of build it and they will come."
Damian O'Reilly, lecturer in retail management at Dublin Institute of Technology, is more optimistic about the area's potential to recover as a shopping centre.
"The new Luas line could help to rejuvenate it. A few years ago, Regent Street in London was in a similar situation to O'Connell Street. It had grand, iconic old buildings, but it had fallen on hard times. Now it has been revived."
Department stores, not just in Ireland but elsewhere, have found themselves under pressure. The model of an all-encompassing shop, selling everything from jewellery and tennis racquets to trousers and toasters, is now regarded as passé by many consumers.
Eddie Shanahan says Clerys is among the stores that have been squeezed in the middle between the bargain shops like Penneys and luxury stores like Brown Thomas.
"People are now shopping down for basics in Penneys, and shopping up for investment in quality clothes. Consumers like to shop at the extremes."
Brown Thomas has thrived because it knows its precise market (often Asian visitors with deep pockets) and brings a certain razzmatazz to the shopping experience.
Retail lecturer Damian O'Reilly says the internet brought extra competition to shops like Clerys, but some other department stores have adapted well by selling both online and in the shop.
"The online sales at John Lewis have been increasing over the past few years, because they have a great range of stock. Click and collect is very popular. Shoppers buy online and collect it in the store."
For the younger workers in Clerys, there is at least the hope that in an economic recovery, they will be able to find jobs. But for those who have been attached to the store for decades, it will be more difficult to make a fresh start.