Thursday 14 November 2019

Martina Devlin: Jaded Clerys needs to revive era of mystique

OVERCOME with nostalgia, I took a stroll round Clerys, intending to soak in the atmosphere one last time before a US private equity firm did whatever it was they planned to do to the grand old lady of O'Connell Street.

But sentiment soon paled in the face of reality, and the best part of the experience coincided with leaving the department store. An elderly gentleman in a hat, a little frail and stooped but impeccably turned out, was halfway through the door as I approached it.

Immediately, he stopped and held it open for me. Did he bow slightly, or did I imagine that part of the encounter? Anyhow, when I attempted to hold the door in turn for him, so he could finish entering the shop, he warned it was too heavy for me and insisted on grappling with it alone.

The chance meeting was conducted in a courteous manner redolent of an earlier age, and I didn't like to suggest I could probably manage a door. By all means, let him consider me fragile and in need of assistance.

It was a charming encounter, one of those snapshots in time which brighten the mood, but it had nothing to do with Clerys -- although perhaps it shines a light on their customers. They are ageing, mannerly and may represent a vanishing Ireland.

Brown Thomas, of course, has a uniformed doorman to manage recalcitrant doors for shoppers. But Brown Thomas didn't borrow €26m during our 'top of the world, Ma' phase, to buy neighbouring buildings for an expansion which never happened. Even if Clerys customers were clamouring to spend money -- and they haven't been -- it's simply not possible to trade out of those debt levels.

When I visited, Clerys was doing a brisk trade in tea and cake in its various coffee outlets, but business looked slack elsewhere. By the tills, there was a distinct sense of tumbleweed drifting past. The store lost €2m in the 12 months to January 2011, while turnover fell by 15pc.

Still, during my sentimental journey, I intended to buy something -- I would leave proudly carrying a Clerys bag. It would be a nod to my long-gone granny in her spangled wool twinsets and sensible brogues -- to all the grannies, who made a beeline for the landmark building when they arrived in Dublin from the country. For them, it represented glamour plus trustworthiness, an unusual combination but one which they prized.

And so I walked about, money burning a hole in my pocket: my mother and her mother before her had shopped here. By jingo, I was going to do the same.

Except I searched in vain for something I wanted. I asked a passing assistant for help. "I don't work in this department," she said, and beetled on. Oh dear, new owners Gordon Brothers of Boston may need to consider staff training.

Beaten in the footwear and fashion departments (is there really a brand named Easy Comfort? Surely that's the antithesis of fashion) I decided to try haberdashery. You'll always find something handy in haberdashery. "We closed that department," said the assistant. So much for the one-stop-shop model. Thwarted, I went to Arnotts.

There is no doubt Clerys needs investment -- to upgrade the interior, rather down-at-heel, despite a makeover eight years ago, and to find some direction for that alarming mish-mash of stock.

Arriving on O'Connell Street, I had steered for the Clerys clock in a downbeat mood, assuming the sale was emblematic of Ireland's ongoing problems -- exactly four years since the bank guarantee, and big names continue to topple. Yet it turns out that selling the family-owned concern may be the saviour of the business.

Of late, Clerys has grown as jaded as Ireland itself. Buried under the flotsam and layers, however, is a magnificent store bursting to emerge -- the vestiges of its former splendour remain in the floor-to-ceiling columns and the grand staircase, all marble and gilt.

The high counters I remember from childhood are gone, with stock kept in drawers beneath them. Gone, too, are the thrilling tubes running from counter to cash office which sent a customer's change whizzing back. We can reminisce about such features, but let's be honest -- we no longer want to shop that way.

The new owners must now transform the Clerys environment. It needs to become a more luxurious, theatrical experience -- magical on the inside all year round, rather than only on the outside to children gazing at its Christmas windows. Not every store can be a Harrods, but an element of make-believe is essential: shop here and your life will be enhanced in some mysterious way.

Back in 1941, Kerryman Denis Guiney bought the department store out of the hands of receivers for £250,000. Fast forward 70 years and once more it has been bought from receivers. This time, it was the first pre-packed deal in Ireland; a choreographed receivership with a buyer lined up already, allowing a deal to be cut on the Bank of Ireland debt, reduced by €11m to €15m.

That Guiney purchase in those challenging days of the 1940s allowed the business to enter a new era. Let us hope history can repeat itself in even more demanding times.

For now, Clerys continues, when it could easily have collapsed -- behind that glorious facade, there might have been another amusement arcade or car park. But Clerys endures.

Irish Independent

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