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Dublin Looks North As Frasers Set To Reinvigorate Neglected Retail Zone

The way we were: Debenhams is being replaced by Sports Direct on Henry Street.

In late 2022, the somewhat neglected north side of Dublin received a big Christmas present, one that is set to have a significant impact on the city's retail real estate sector.

The arrival of Frasers Group with a flagship Sports Direct store stands to reorient foot traffic and give the city’s inner north district the anchor it has been sadly lacking ever since Debenhams went into long-term demise, before eventually closing.

That was confirmed in late December 2022, when the expansionist retail group became the new owner of the former Debenhams department store on Henry Street as the UK-based retail giant continued its ‘elevation strategy’ and growth in Ireland.

The 210K SF site is part-occupied by a 20K SF Zara and is set to become a new leading flagship destination for Sports Direct.

And Dublin should have high expectations, because the retail group has already developed a cutting-edge store on London’s Oxford Street, leaving the image of some of its more tired store estate far behind.

Far from buckling under the impact of the pandemic, Dublin’s main retail thoroughfares have bounced back, with a further boost set to arrive with the city implementing plans to extend car-free zones around core shopping areas.

“Dublin is a strategic market for the group, and this site will allow us to grow our presence in Ireland as we continue to expand and deliver our elevation strategy,” Sports for Frasers Group Managing Director Ger Wright said at the time of the purchase.

Sport Direct To Anchor North Side

News of a traffic-driving anchor on Henry Street could help attract more retailers to an area that already has Dublin stalwart Arnotts and a large Penneys, especially with Grafton Street, the city's main shopping street, tipping toward full capacity, bar some smaller units that may be less attractive to retailers looking for new sites.

Indeed, the recovery in Grafton Street’s fortunes has reached the point where it could reach an occupancy level of close to 100% this year, despite losing a series of established retail names during and after the pandemic.

“Even for Grafton Street recovery took some time but it’s very clear that the centre of Dublin is not over-retailed in the way some UK cities are," Colliers International Head of Retail Eoin Feeney said. "And when you look at the retailers who have left Dublin, many are those that came in the 1990s and who are not performing well generally. Those that came more recently have largely remained."

Richard Guiney, CEO of BID Dublin Town, said that footfall has stabilised at close to 90% of 2019 levels, and work to make more streets around the retail centre car-free should provide a boost for retailers and hospitality around the core streets.

Upturn On Grafton Street

The upturn arguably started in January 2021, when Hugo Boss signed a new 10-year lease on its flagship store at number 67-68, committing to an annual rent of €630K. The figure represented a 24% reduction on its previous rate, reflecting a new realism about achievable rents for landlords.

Cushman & Wakefield’s most recent Main Streets Across the World report, published in November 2022, ranked Grafton Steet as 15th of 92 for annual rents at €2,933 per SQM, a 17% decrease on pre-pandemic levels.

U.S.-based athleisure brand Lululemon became the first new retailer to announce an opening on Grafton Street since before 2020 when it committed to a 10-year lease at number 84 for an estimated €400K per year. More recently, in mid-2022, footwear brand Skechers signed a new long-term lease for the former Tommy Hilfiger premises. 

The international footwear giant is understood to have agreed to pay a rent of €900K per annum, 47% less than the €1.7M rent previous tenant Tommy Hilfiger had been paying before it exited a property it had occupied since 2007.

Several more international brands also arrived on Grafton Street in the second half of 2022, including Lego, which opened in August at number 41, Dr Martens, which moved from 24 Duke Street (where it is being replaced by luxury retailer Mulberry) to 83 Grafton Street, and footwear and accessories retailer Russell & Bromley at the former Fitzpatrick’s store at number 76.

Meanwhile Irish cosmetic brand Sculpted by Aimee moved to number 50/51 and most recently, Irish activewear brand New Dimensions Active opened at number 47 in November at an annual rent of around €500K-€600K.

Canada Goose, which grew from a Brown Thomas concession to a pop-up store, is now in a permanent home at the former Monsoon store at 64 Grafton Street, with Monsoon rumoured to be looking at a Dublin comeback.

Skechers is joining an increasingly full Grafton Street.

For its part, Frasers Group already had established plans to expand in Dublin, with a Sports Direct outlet on North Earl Street and its premium fashion brand Flannels agreeing in January to occupy half of the 60K SF retail space at the redeveloped and renamed Clerys Quarter on O’Connell Street. H&M will take the other half for its latest and largest store in Dublin city centre.

Flannels has already debuted in Ireland after opening a new store at Blanchardstown Centre in December 2022 at the former Debenhams store on the ground floor of the centre, spanning more than 30K SF.

“Debenhams on Henry Street was the largest vacant retail space in the centre of Dublin and has been empty since March 2020 and inevitably such a large vacancy creates a level of nervousness among neighbouring retailers,” Feeney said.

However, he pointed out that trading has remained strong and retailers such as Penneys and Zara have capitalised from the loss of Debenhams and Topshop.

Clerys Clock Rings Changes

The long-delayed redevelopment of Clerys, which shut down almost eight years ago, is now on track to be completed in time for the shops to open before the summer, providing a further boost to north-side retail.

The redevelopment has involved the restoration of the historic features of the eponymous 170-year-old department store, which closed suddenly in June 2015 shortly after it was bought for €29M by Natrium.

In 2018 it was sold to Europa Capital, and its local partners, Core Capital and Oakmount, for a sum understood to be in the region of €63M.

The old store and an adjoining building, renamed the Clerys Quarter, have been undergoing redevelopment since 2019 as a retail, office, bar and restaurant complex, as well as a hotel. Press Up Entertainment Group will operate the development’s rooftop bar and restaurant, Clerys Rooftop Restaurant.

Signalling progress, the restored landmark Clerys clock was unveiled on January 17, 2023, at a ceremony with Lord Mayor of Dublin Caroline Conroy.

Retail Vacancies Drop

With the number of vacant units on Grafton Street dropping from 16 in December 2021 to just six units at the end of 2022 — numbers 3, 55, 104, 110, 112-113 and 114 —  of which just two are over 2K SF, the prospect of the core retail artery filling up is becoming a distinct possibility.

Standard units on Henry/Mary Street are bigger on average (2.9K SF on the ground floor vs. 1.4K SF on Grafton when department stores are excluded), according to Colliers Head of Research Kate Ryan.

Consequently, the size of the units currently available could encourage some retailers to look to alternative locations around the new base for Sports Direct, which will also have Arnotts, Zara and Penneys as neighbours, plus the revitalised Clerys Quarter.

The retail zone is also expanding, with upscale pen and watchmaker Montblanc moving into a unit on South Anne Street, and luxury handbag maker Mulberry taking the former Dr Martens site on Duke Street.

Meanwhile high-end jeweller Paul Sheeran will open a multiboutique complex across the entire ground floor of Hines’ Chatham & King development, featuring Panerai, Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Jaeger-LeCoultre, TAG Heuer and Breitling with own-door outlets as part of a 7K SF, €4M investment on 10-year leases.

The Clerys clock has been inaugurated, with the retail to follow this summer.

On Henry/Mary Street things have been slower to recover, largely due to the fact that Debenhams is still vacant and also the street is a little more disjointed than Grafton Street with all the department stores, Ryan said.

“However, if we strip out Debenhams, vacancy at the end of 2022 was just 2.5% of total retail space, which is a big difference as Debenhams itself accounts for 17% of the total retail space on the streets. Rents have not recovered yet.

"On Henry/Mary Street the latest MSCI figures said they are still 60% off the 2008 peak while on Grafton Street rents are 44% below peak. Worth noting here is that these ‘Celtic Tiger’ rents were very inflated, and we are unlikely to get back to those highs,” Ryan added.

Dublin Central Planning

Furthermore, Ryan said that if Hammerson’s plans for Dublin Central are approved, then this would unlock a lot of potential on the north side.

In addition, the retail offer at Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre in Dublin city centre is also set to be repositioned if a €100M expansion that will add two storeys, reduce the existing retail offer and introduce office space, is approved, which would also improve the connections between the centre and King Street, St Stephen’s Green West and Grafton Street.

“There’s no doubt rents have recalibrated but when taken as a combination of rent and rates, that makes Dublin attractive compared with most UK cities," Feeney said. "The reality is that the city has a really strong set of brands and an increasingly attractive retail offer.”