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Thursday 19 October 2017

Will the clock keep ticking at Clerys?

It is the most iconic store in Ireland and now the shutters are down as it undergoes a major refit. But does the O'Connell Street mainstay really have a future? Kim Bielenberg reports

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In its heyday it was the capital's great meeting place. Many a Dublin romance began with a rendezvous under Clerys clock – and these shy and occasionally faltering encounters often led from courtship to marriage.

For shoppers, Clerys on O'Connell Street was portrayed as a countrywoman's palace of delights – there they would find dresses, cosmetics, and the sort of hosiery not stocked by the local draper.

Husbands may have come along reluctantly in tow, but at least they felt comfortable in its less-than-flash jumpers, crisply creased slacks and jackets.

In its prime, visitors from the four corners of Ireland thronged its halls, particularly on December 8, the big Christmas shopping day.

But those who meet there now will find a forlorn scene. The windows are screened off, the shop has been closed for almost two months, and many of the workers are on the dole.

The roof partially collapsed and water surged through the building during a thunderstorm in the centre of Dublin in late July.

The latest disaster to befall the department store came after years of financial troubles that cast doubt on its survival. And at times the Clerys clock seemed to be ticking in a different era of fashion.

The owners of Clerys, the Boston-based Gordon Brothers, have insisted that they plan to reopen the store in early November in time for the Christmas shopping season.

And they are using the opportunity to give this ageing maiden aunt of a department store a thorough and much-needed facelift.

Contrary to rumours that there is nothing happening in the closed shop, there were dozens of construction workers in hard hats working when I visited this week.

John Adam, who runs a hairdressing salon in Clerys, has had to lay off three of his staff, but he is confident about the store's reopening.

"The store is being completely refitted and I am very positive and excited about it," says the hairdresser, who also has a salon in Rathmines. "I hope that it will re-energise Clerys."

His salon is one of many concessions in Clerys that have had to stop trading temporarily.

"It is a difficult time for the workers," says Mandate Union official Mike Meegan, who represents shop assistants. "But we are hopeful that the shop will reopen with a whole new refit in time for the Christmas shopping season."

When it eventually reopens, Clerys will face a tough challenge in trying to re-establish itself as one of Dublin's leading department stores. It urgently needs to shed its dowdy image.

The department store has made sporadic attempts to make itself more fashionable, but a tale told by a model who was hired to showcase a trendy range in the era of the previous owners is telling.

She recalled how she sashayed around, but everywhere she looked she saw elderly ladies reacting with shock to what she was wearing.

Dublin retail consultant Eddie Shanahan says the heyday of Clerys was in the 1950s and 1960s: "Certain parts of Clerys were modernised in subsequent decades, but it was done in a piecemeal way.

"You might be going through the store and find a brand for 16-year-olds next to one for 60-year-olds," says Shanahan, a former marketing director of Clerys' northside rival, Arnotts. It was not logical, and not what young shoppers were looking for."

For decades the store was presided over by Mary Guiney, who started out as a shop assistant and married the boss, Denis Guiney. After his death in 1967, she took the reins and became Ireland's wealthiest widow. When she died at the age of 103 in 2004, she left more than €25,000 to have Masses said for the repose of her soul in six Dublin churches. The company was finally sold last year.

At one time Clerys was so popular among country shoppers that the store refunded the train tickets of visitors to the capital who spent more than £5. During sales there was bedlam.

But increasingly, as slicker British chains invaded our streets, Clerys came to be seen as a relic of quaint auld decency rather than a place to shop.

"One of the problems is that people from the country don't come up to Dublin any more to shop because they have other options," says Shanahan.

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.

As a pillar of 'Middle Ireland', Clerys felt itself squeezed between the bargain basement and the luxury store selling designer labels.

"The middle market has disappeared during the recession," says Shanahan. "People are shopping at the extremes.

"They are either going to Penneys for bargains, or they go to Brown Thomas for luxury quality brands like Hermes or Gucci. They are buying less but choosing carefully."

Shanahan says in contrast to Clerys, Brown Thomas has thrived by constantly adapting and bringing razzmatazz to the retail experience.

"They have focused on a particular consumer, and they have brought in the idea of retail theatre. They bring customers into the shop by holding events. It could be a styling demonstration, or they could bring in international celebrities. They are constantly trying out innovation and spotting new trends. Clerys has not been so good at that."

The storm may have seemed like a disaster, but hairdresser John Adam says: "They are going to reinvent Clerys and they have all sorts of new ideas. They are exposing all the old pillars and the staircase. It's going to be great when it opens."

It will be crucial for Clerys to open by early November to capture a chunk of the Christmas shopping season – known in retailing as the "Golden Quarter".

A total refit may bring back customers, but Clerys' position on O'Connell is not ideal, according to Shanahan.

O'Connell Street may once have been a great shopping thoroughfare, but Shanahan argues that its environment is not suited to leisurely shopping.

'The shopping districts of Grafton Street and Henry Street are pedestrianised, and have a slow pace that gives people time to look in the window displays. O'Connell Street has become a place where you go to get somewhere else. It is fast, and it is not easy if you have lots of bus stops and queues of people waiting."

But all is not lost. A storm may have ripped part of the roof off, but even that damage is minor compared with that during the 1916 Rising when fire gutted the building.

The shop assistants are confident that Clerys can be modernised and recover, and if that happens it would bring a much-needed boost to O'Connell Street itself.

Irish Independent

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