Saturday 17 March 2018

Problem Solver: Out-of-town developments suck the heart out of centres

Feargal Quinn
Feargal Quinn

Q: What is your view of large out-of-town supermarkets at the edge of rural towns?

A: Back in 1960 I was the first retailer in Ireland to embrace the trend of self-service supermarkets, which I had seen for the first time on the continent. I would like to think that over the next 50 years, we had a conscience in where we located our shops. Typically, we found that our model worked well when we were located in close proximity to centres of population. In many cases - like Kilkenny, Carlow and Clonmel - we were in the heart of those towns.

If you grant permission to large out-of-town developments, then the outcome is obvious. You will suck the heart out of the town and give consumers less of a credible reason to visit the town centre on a weekly basis. The food shopping is a big determining factor on where people go each week and it is a fundamental mistake to automatically assume that the only place to facilitate larger developments is the edge of the town.

I do understand the complexity of the decision-making that planners have to face, but I sometimes question whether there is enough energy and passion put into making developments in the centre of town work and whether it is a simpler decision-making process to find a green-field site at the edge of the town.

No matter how strong the small independent retailers are in any town centre, the probability is that they also need a larger food retailer standing beside them if the centre of the town is to be kept as an attractive proposition.

Problems with access, parking and congestion in the town centre can be solved with innovative thinking and a will to make things work. I question whether this will is there in some developments. There are a number of places around the country where the town centre has been devastated by short-term thinking.

Q: What are your predictions for the retail landscape for the year ahead?

A: What a great question - there's no guarantee my predictions will be correct though! In the food retail sector I think we are going to see more examples of the 'Big Three' trying to differentiate themselves from each other. We have come through 10 years of price-focused retailing, which seems to be changing to food retailers embracing new concepts and bringing theatre and storytelling back to their shops.

While predictable growth in online retailing will continue, we are going to see some emerging new small formats that will focus on the retail experience and getting the customer to interact more with the merchandise and staff. Experiential retailing is seen as the future.

Ireland will definitely see some new arrivals across the various retail categories as many European and American models look to establish a foothold here - this will change the high street landscape.

Finally, I see massive investment in customer service training and upskilling of staff. We have already seen this with low-cost operators like Penney's, Ryanair and Lidl investing large sums to upskill their staff. That is going to push the full-service operators to even newer heights in customer service, which can't be a bad thing. Let's review these predications in a year's time.

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