Sunday 22 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'It's still a wonderful life on the Main Streets of Ireland'

Main Streets provide a much more human experience than Christmas shopping online. And it's better for the planet too, writes Brendan O'Connor

LOCAL LEGENDS: Fishmonger Pat O’Connell of the English Market in Cork. O’Connell’s now have a new outlet at the new Dunnes in Bishopstown Court.
Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
LOCAL LEGENDS: Fishmonger Pat O’Connell of the English Market in Cork. O’Connell’s now have a new outlet at the new Dunnes in Bishopstown Court. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

They had chicken and ham for lunch at the new Dunnes in Bishopstown Court the other day. "Pity they're not open Christmas Day," joked one of the older people from the neighbourhood who frequent it for lunch. I call it the new Dunnes to distinguish from the old Dunnes, the shopping centre of my youth, where we hung around as kids, where apart from Dunnes, the Read and Write store was the main attraction for younger people. The old Dunnes is still there and can be handy to pick up a few essentials, and will be done up soon. But the new Dunnes, out at the roundabout, is a different matter entirely.

And now it's the new new Dunnes, because it's been Cornelscourtised. As well as Sheridans Cheese, and the Alternative Bread Company (ABC) and James Whelan Butchers, and all the other enhancements people have come to expect from Dunnes's new foodhalls, O'Connell's fishmongers from the English Market is in there too. The ABC, incidentally, started out in the English Market too.

There was always a danger that Cork would reject these enhancements as notions, and there is no doubt some do. But for most people, Dunnes has created a destination shop.

Somewhere where you go and do your shopping yes, but where you also have a nice experience. They were flocking there when I was down recently. People were bumping into people they hadn't seen in a while, and everyone was chatting. Some people were a bit overawed by how posh it was but even if they had come to give out, they were quickly charmed. And for the older people from the neighbourhood, it's clearly becoming a town centre, a hangout, somewhere to go for coffee or lunch and while away the day, somewhere apart from Mass where you'll bump into people. You might end up spending more that you intended to, and it might be handier to get your shopping delivered these days. But the experience is proving priceless for many.

Some 1,300 High Street stores have closed in Britain this year. The consensus is that it is mid-range stores that have largely been hit hardest in the so-called Death of the High Street in the UK. The likes of Primark/Penneys and H&M are bucking the trend to some extent - though Primark warned of challenging trading conditions last week - as are higher end stores, which are increasingly offering a more experiential product. The boss of Harrods recently talked about the need to ''excite'' customers - which is fine if you're Harrods and can do a £200m makeover, as it recently did.

Dunnes has clearly decided on a Harrods strategy, investing to create a nice environment. Even the German discounters are following them now. The new Aldi in Blackrock's Frascati Centre is miles from our initial impressions of the German discounters as grim, utilitarian, soul-less German warehouses, and the yummy mummies of South Dublin appeared to be taking to it well the day I went there.

Former chair of the Housing Authority Conor Skehan has written in this paper about how Irish towns can rejuvenate their high streets. He talks about the Main Street as a place for social spaces like coffee shops, and where services are provided. Skehan even argues that it's perhaps no harm that the big shops stay on the outskirts of town as it makes more sense from a spatial and parking point of view. And let the Main Street and other narrower streets in town get on with being a more relaxed social space where smaller businesses can thrive.

We need to think about this. Because be in no doubt, what happens in the UK happens here eventually. They may be further down the road than us, but it will come to us very soon.

I went to check out Main Street Dublin last week. We got rid of the kids for a few hours after work and hit Grafton Street with a list of jobs to do. To those of you who've been doing all your Christmas shopping online, I can report that Grafton Street was a very interactive experience. The bustle and the lights and the energy were far more exciting than scrolling through pictures. Furthermore, interacting with shopkeepers and staff is a lot more fun than being on some endless live chat with someone who is possibly not human and who never answers your actual question about something on a website.

I was looking for runners and had a very specific set of requirements. Imagine my surprise when a friendly young person in a shop listened to me, thought about it and brought me to exactly the right pair. As much as Artificial Intelligence might be making shopping online more frictionless, this young woman had something else, which was emotional intelligence. There was a slightly depressing moment when we discovered she hadn't my size in the ones I wanted. As I was leaving, she said to me in a resigned voice: "So the name of the model, for when you go to buy it online somewhere else later is…"

And I wanted to tell her that it wasn't her fault she didn't make the sale, that I hadn't just used her, as she is clearly accustomed to being used, to find out the product I needed before heading off to buy it online somewhere else. But it was sad that this is her reality now, that she is often just sales support for someone else's website.

We didn't get half of our jobs done. Because we kept bumping into people we knew, or getting distracted. We got so carried away with the atmosphere we even ended up deciding to have a couple of drinks at the bar in Balfes at the Westbury, which was bustling and full of Christmas cheer, And then we ended up going for fantastic Mexican street food around the corner in Masa, a buzzy Mexican cantina-style place full of young people and groups meeting up, high on Christmas spirit.

And you know what? We spent more than we intended to, we didn't do half of what we meant to do, and we didn't get everything we needed. But it was a great few hours. And we saw, too, the value of Main Street as a social space, as part of the glue that holds society together, a place for us all to share our common humanity, for people from different worlds who don't often meet to bump into each other, for the village that is Dublin to come together.

No one could feel lonely there, the way you can feel lonely and empty and sad, sitting in the dim blue light of a screen.

In a funny way, it could be the same young people who led the charge on online shopping who lead us back to the Main Street. It was primarily young people who were out and about and working around Grafton Street last week. And it is young people who have been creating new businesses in various found spaces and moribund streets and neighbourhoods. Young people are the makers, the service providers, the ones who set up coffee shops and hubs and other social spaces.

The hipster backlash against the corporatisation of everything by global commerce and the internet has led to a vogue for authenticity, for texture, for the kind of real experiences you get in bricks and mortar. Young people are also becoming more and more aware of the dodgy ethics - environmentally and in terms of working conditions - around ordering and returning stuff online willy-nilly, all the time demanding faster delivery and returns.

The so-called "final mile", the most environmentally disastrous part of the supply chain, used to involve large lorries going from distribution centre to shop. Now it's about half-empty vans bringing parcels that are often half-full of packaging and air to various houses all over the place, with many of them being collected for return the next day.

Just as the young have led us all on environmental awareness, you wonder if they will lead us back to Main Street again before long.

In the meantime, embrace your local Main Street this Christmas. I promise you. You won't regret it. And for those of you who don't care for that. Well, you'll be glad to hear that Postmates, which will deliver anything you want from any shop or restaurant to wherever you want it, whenever you want it, last week unveiled the autonomous delivery robot of the future - it's called Serve, and it's launching soon in Los Angeles. What a time to be alive.

Sunday Independent

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