Tuesday 12 November 2019

Caitlin McBride: 'Death of the high street? Not so fast - Brown Thomas' €70m investment is just what Irish retailers need'

Brown Thomas launched The Marvel Room 2019
Brown Thomas launched The Marvel Room 2019
Eva Byrne O’Flaherty in the Arnotts Christmas Shop as the store gets set for more investment. Photo: David Conachy
Ambassador: Victoria Beckham launching her collaboration with Estee Lauder in Brown Thomas, Dublin
Models Cadhla and Sadbh were on hand to help launch the Arnotts autumn-winter 2019 season collection, which aims to show exciting newness across a diverse mix of trends. Photo: Leon Farrell
Brown Thomas launched The Marvel Room 2019
Caitlin McBride

Caitlin McBride

The bleak nature of the global retail environment has become such an expected part of the news cycle, it fails to invoke the same outrage it has in the past.

Amid the closures and the job losses and the technology-threatening practices of businesses around the world, a glimmer of hope has emerged - and refreshingly, in Ireland.

The Selfridges group, which acquired iconic Dublin department store Arnotts in 2015, adding to its Irish portfolio which was previously limited to Brown Thomas, have announced a €70m investment across both stores by 2024.

Decision makers are thrusting their carefully considered budget in both its in-person experience and digital offering; understanding the rarely accepted reality that when it comes to shopping, there is room for both.

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Brown Thomas launched The Marvel Room 2019
Brown Thomas launched The Marvel Room 2019

It's easy to write off an in-store experience: it's expensive to run, both in high rental costs, staff, maintenance and any other myriad hidden costs to run a successful operation. Digital is cheaper, it's faster and it's easier to spend at the click of a button. Both Brown Thomas and Arnotts have invested heavily in their digital presences in recent months and have plans to overhaul it even further and make it more reflective of the unique offerings both possess in their brick-and-mortar operations.

People want to spend money: according to the Central Statistics Office, the volume of retail sales increased 5.7% in August when compared to July on a seasonally adjusted basis and increased by 2.1% on an annual basis.

The more options afforded to them, the consumer, the better. The landscape of Dublin in particular is changing both literally and philosophically and many are mourning the loss of cultural ‘institutions’ - which usually come in the form of pubs - the concept of a cloud of doom and gloom overshadowing our fair city is an unnecessarily pessimistic one.

Department stores like Brown Thomas and Arnotts represent the same level of cultural significance, but because they represent the transactional ugliness of business, they are oft overlooked in the fight for a sustainable economy which recognises Ireland - and Dublin's - uniqueness.

The investment is a vote of confidence so yearned for in Ireland and this time of spending is a commitment that will inspire not only shoppers, but other retailers - at least those who can afford it.

Read more: BTs and Arnotts to invest €70m in shops and digital by 2024

Realistically, €70m, even spread over the course of five years, is a significant investment with an equally significant cash pile required to support it, and it’s not something that independent retailers being pushed out by increasingly impossible rents and globalisation; but it is a vote of confidence in the the Irish market, one which is often undervalued in comparison to our European neighbours.

I always admire a ‘traditional’ brand willing to adapt in more ways than will get them some shares on Twitter. A key element of their plan is sustainability, recognising both the necessity for responsible distribution and consumption, but the sheer popularity of it allows for an easy win.

Models Cadhla and Sadbh were on hand to help launch the Arnotts autumn-winter 2019 season collection, which aims to show exciting newness across a diverse mix of trends. Photo: Leon Farrell
Models Cadhla and Sadbh were on hand to help launch the Arnotts autumn-winter 2019 season collection, which aims to show exciting newness across a diverse mix of trends. Photo: Leon Farrell

H&M, at the forefront of ‘fast fashion’ has transformed its public perception with its incredibly popular Conscious Collection, using sustainable and recycled materials, and by 2040, they aim to have all of their items produced in this way.

Someone on the Brown Thomas strategy team is likely getting a well-deserved pay rise.

“We are selling these lifetime pieces in the first place. Who better to bring a second life to a product, because we have the credentials in selling them in the first place,” said Donald McDonald, the managing director of Brown Thomas and Arnotts.

It’s already enacted its strategy by introducing Siopella, the popular designer consignment store run by Ella de Guzman, who is running a mini-version of their operation at the Marvel Room in Brown Thomas’ Christmas section; reserved for the most lavish brands and stand-out pieces not usually available for sale.

This isn’t the first time they’ve identified growth in the market: in 2014, they invested €12m into their Beauty Hall, which now boasts some of the busiest cosmetic counters in the world. While beauty brands prefer to keep their national figures close to their chest, the Armani, MAC and Charlotte Tilbury counters are among the most profitable globally.

Anecdotally, I couldn’t get an appointment for a 30-minute makeup application at one cosmetics counter on a Friday at 10am as each was filled with women building relationships with their beauty representatives.

While Topshop might be making its own Brexit from the Irish market and Debenhams is struggling to keep up with its Henry Street neighbour Arnotts, let’s take the increasingly rare good news when it happens.

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