Saturday 21 September 2019

'We have every kind of bag, from €20 to €20,000' - Dublin's Designer Exchange knows its Chanel from its Prada

Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

Romance isn't the first word that springs to mind when thinking about retail, designer handbags and pre-loved products - but it's a sentiment that Paddy Coughlan believes defines many a customer experience in his store.

The founder and owner of The Designer Exchange (DE) on Dublin's Dawson St celebrates the shop's fifth birthday this weekend, years it has taken him to build up a network of customers who wholly embrace the concept of his business.

"People have an idea of what pre-loved is and visualise the musty dusty store, and that's great, there's a market for that. I was a big shopper in Eager Beaver when I was younger," he told

"But six years ago we spotted a gap in the market for the pre-loved designer bag trade...We got our first Louis Vuitton bag in and then someone traded their Louis Vuitton to get that Louis Vuitton bag and all of a sudden we had a more expensive Louis Vuitton bag in stock which someone else traded a Louis Vuitton and Prada bag against.

"All of a sudden we had two designer bags and a mix of Michael Kors and DKNY and other brands around the place. And it's grown to what you see in the store today."

There are over 1,200 individual items in DE stock at the moment, the majority of which are handbags, but also includes designer accessories such as earrings, scarves and cuffs. And every single designer item is fully authenticated through in-house stringent checks and the occasional external consultation. One of the business' top priorities has been to create this reputation of reliability and trust.

Two of the newest arrivals at Design Exchange
Two of the newest arrivals at Design Exchange

"There is a degree of replica bags out there so people - especially when they come into a pre-loved store - it's the first question we should answer (and the first question a customer should ask) and we never take offense by it," said Paddy.

"We don't take a gamble at all. you can't build a business on lack of trust. Our last five years in business has been built on people embracing the concept. And they've embraced the concept because they trusted us."

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Paddy is no stranger to the value of a good trade. For 10 years, he worked in the business of buying and selling computer games in Gameworld, a concept that worked so successfully that multinational GameStop bought the firm out.

"When I took voluntary redundancy, I knew I wanted to do my own thing, and the great benefit was having five sisters to bounce this idea off," said Paddy.

"I knew from talking to them that there was a demographic there that really wanted these items."

The store started out as a rare clothing company, "a beta test", but the plan was always to become a designer exchange and focus on handbags.

"We had lovely clothes but we wouldn't always have the size the customer required, that's rarely an issue when it comes to handbags," said Paddy.

Over the last five years, Paddy believes DE has established "a bit of an algorithm" for pricing the goods coming in and out. But he maintains that the key selling point of becoming a regular customer is discovering the real value of the items in your possession.

"The amount of people that have said 'Eureka, you're here', as they are looking to trade in accessories they have had hidden away in their wardrobe because they're looking to put an extension on the house, buying a new kitchen, or getting a new car," he said.

"Gone are the days that you drop €1000 on a handbag and you never see that money again. Buy it for €1000, we are going to give you a minimum of 60pc of that back when you trade it back to us.

"If you decide to own it for a year, that trickles down that the cost of owning a bag becomes your daily cup of coffee."

But if you're already balking at the pre-loved product price tag, don't fret, more accessible high street names are on offer in the store too - and come with the same customer care.

"We have everything from a €20 to the €20,000 piece in store. Our €50 handbag should look just as well as that €20,000 one. This business just had to be value or it won't survive," said Paddy.

"Not to mention the value of the experience you get in store. We're not stuffy, we don't exclude people. You don't have to feel that you're part of a club just because we have Louis Vuitton in stock.

And if that Chanel medium classic flap simply has to be yours, you don't have to live on beans for a month or two, there is an installment plan available. Paying 30pc of the full price of the piece upfront, the customer then has 12 weeks to clear off the balance, interest-free.

Paddy is proud of the way the business has developed over the years, particularly of the positive experience he believes he has cultivated for his customer base - and the growth of his knowledgeable team, a team of 8, which includes a social media manager "who works to the bone". 

"The customer needs to get all the details on social media. If there's an imperfection, a scratch somewhere, if there's a small stain inside the bag, that's photographed. So when that person receives it, there's not getting any nasty surprises," he said.

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"We're not after huge margins, we're after turning stock, giving people a positive experience so that they shop with us more. Our ethos is that it's a marathon, not a sprint, we want customers for life."

There's a top 20 list of bags that Paddy said he needs to have in stock at all times because before they store shelf, there's a customer on a waiting list already claiming it.

But as "fond believers of quirk", there's a few weird and wonderful items that have crossed the shop counter at Designer Exchange but "there are no strange requests".

"We've a bag up there on display at the moment that is one of 15 ever made, a Louis Vuitton, it needs its own passport for passing through international borders because it's an exotic skin. It's a piece that at launch that would have been priced at €11,000 - we're selling it at €5,000."

Designer Exchange's fifth birthday coincides with imminent expansion plans for the business, and Paddy is expected to grow his team by 50pc in the coming months.

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