Tuesday 23 January 2018

Down town: the quiet streets still awaiting frenzy

While our cities are being stampeded by post-austerity shoppers, many parts of Ireland are still stuck in the slow lane.

Slight upturn: Mary Clinton Costello outside her Clonmel department store. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Slight upturn: Mary Clinton Costello outside her Clonmel department store. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

Graham Clifford

It's a murky afternoon in Clonmel town centre and while a sprinkling of locals meander through the streets, the shops are slumbering. The festive rush has yet to reach the centre of Tipperary's county town, it seems.

But in the Showgrounds shopping centre on the outskirts of Clonmel, the scene is somewhat different as cars queue up to find a free parking space and mothers carrying bulging plastic bags duck and dive from the intermittent showers.

While we're told Irish shoppers will splash out an astonishing €1.6bn this Christmas, the slice of the pie for independent retailers in regional towns will be comparatively meagre.

The explosion of online shopping and the growth of out-of-town shopping centres has taken its toll on family-run businesses and sole traders who once flourished across rural Ireland.

And larger Irish retailers are feeling the pinch too. This week SuperValu announced it was to close its store in the centre of the town next January with the loss of 44 jobs.

In Clinton's Department Store in the heart of Clonmel, the family who own the business are this week celebrating their 100th year in existence.

Owner Mary Clinton Costello tells me that while she's noticed a slight upturn in trading this year, the difficulties facing independent retail businesses in the town are many.

"Between paying rates to the council and VAT at 23pc, it's difficult and there's little, if any, help for retailers. It does feel like we're paddling our own canoe," she said, "and there's no allocated free parking at all in the town centre, except on Saturdays, in the lead-up to Christmas, so lots of people use the out-of-town shopping centres where parking is free."

Many locals also head to Cork or Dublin for their Christmas shopping, despite the best efforts of local businesses.

Another long-time retailer in the town is Conor Moroney, who owns Moroney Footwear.

"There are no meaningful incentives for retailers in regional towns. Exorbitant parking fees and charges are so unhelpful while you have these doughnut shopping developments around the periphery of towns like Clonmel which can offer free parking," Moroney told Review.

Brian Cleary, CEO of Clonmel's Chamber of Commerce, says that each year the County Council in Tipperary collect around €2m from parking fees and fines in the town.

"Clonmel has so much to offer, both in the town centre where we have around 250 independent stores and in the nearby shopping centres," he said but added: "clearly though the issue of parking is a substantial problem. The Council needs to step up and focus on how to make our towns more appealing and support retailers in a practical way."

Shop owners in Clonmel must pay for Christmas lights each year, the annual cost coming in at around €40,000. And this year an additional €48,000 had to be found to update the electric requirements for the Christmas lights in the town - though the council did assist.

"It's hard to understand why retailers still have to pay their €200 or €300 each year for lights when they pay such high rates. In Tipperary, over €30m is paid in rates to the council, surely the cost of Christmas lights should be covered by them."

Also, it's claimed that most of the larger chain stores in Clonmel do not contribute to the Christmas lights - though some believe they benefit the most from increased footfall in the town.

Down the road in Mitchelstown, the cost of festive lighting is also a hot topic.

Each year retailers have to fork out €4,800 just for the electricity points - the cost of any new lights and their erection comes on top of that.

The festive lights that illuminate the main street in the Cork town have seen better days and local retailers hope to fundraise for new ones next year.

Here, too, the issue of rates is contentious, with one business owner telling me he pays €17,000 a year to the council - "from the second I turn on the light switch on January 2, I'm charged," he says.

Located just 50km away from Cork City centre and with the M8 motorway offering easy access to Ireland's second city, the reality of losing locals to retail outlets on Leeside are obvious - but Margaret Hyland, who runs The Favourite newsagents and The Scullery gift shop in the town, says people support their local shops when they can.

"Where possible, they buy their gifts in Mitchelstown but everyone seems to have their day-out in the run-up to Christmas in either Dublin or Cork. A lot are taken in by the discounts advertised at the major stores, which are hard for smaller retailers to compete with. It's difficult, but you just have to forget about that, work hard and look after your own corner," she says.

But what about cost? Aren't items less expensive online and in major shopping centres than they would be in your average local store?

"No, not necessarily," explains Edward Walsh, whose family owns The Treasure Chest Jewellers and Watchmakers in Mitchelstown.

"A lot of our watches and items of jewellery cost less here than they would down in Cork. With the branded items, there's a recommended retail price so they won't cost more if you buy them locally and you're saving on all the driving, parking fees and stress of going to a larger town or city."

In Lil' boutique, a children's clothes shop, owner Edel Morrissey said it can be difficult to compete with online shopping. "I speak to the couriers who drop stock off here and they tell me they're so busy with online deliveries across rural Ireland. Since online has become popular we see less people even browsing at the shop window."

In Edel's shop, mother Ann Marie Walsh tells me she believes in shopping locally - "I don't particularly like online shopping myself as I like to feel and hold what I'm purchasing, especially when it comes to children's clothes."

One rural town which seems to have cracked the Christmas secret of retail is Dungarvan. The Waterford town's Chamber of Commerce is the driving force behind the 'Dungarvan Aglow' initiative, which sees the town's streets and shops cleverly illuminated in the run up to Christmas.

While other regional towns were rummaging in the attic looking for their Christmas lights, Dungarvan had there's switched on - since November 20 - and Jenny Beresford, Business Development Manager with the local Chamber, explains how creating that festive feel has reaped financial rewards.

"Undoubtedly, the initiative works in attracting people into the town. As part of Dungarvan Aglow we run arts and crafts exhibitions, a fairy-door trail for kids and have the 'Elf on the Shelf' selfie competition, where the elf is moved from one shop window to another each day leading up to Christmas; when children find it and take a selfie they can win a prize," she says. "These initiatives attract families to the town, it creates a feel-good factor and we know it has led to increased foot fall in Dungarvan."

Additionally, the Chamber sells around €240,000 worth of vouchers each year, mainly around Christmas, which can only be spent locally.

Retailers in the town don't pay for Christmas street lighting as a grant was secured under the Waterford Leader programme in 2013 and annual rates are used to cover the expense.

"It's certainly a progressive town. Of course rates are a killer but that aside, Dungarvan has done a good job at selling itself," says James Buckley, who owns James Menswear.

Pippa Sweeney of the award-winning The Beach House Gallery, which sells Irish-made gifts, explains that the town's retailers work together to market the town. "It takes a lot of hard work, but we know we're now attracting people from outside of Dungarvan into the town.''

On the square in Dungarvan one shop window catches my eye. In it I spot an archery bow and target, an American football, hurling helmet, dumb-bell weights, school bags, skipping ropes, darts, hockey sticks, a fishing rod and a slingshot.

Inside the family-run All Rounder Sports shop, Marian Moloney explains: "These are the kind of shops that rural towns can provide and we've been here for 40 years. So far things haven't been too busy but we know that in the last two weeks before Christmas we'll be run off our feet here in Dungarvan."

What other rural towns would give for such a complaint.

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