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Dublin Waits On Debenhams Decision As City Bucks Retail Struggles

Dublin's retail scene looks to be on the up, with vacancies down, new players entering the city and an important decision on the ownership of the former Debenhams store on Henry Street to come.

The new owner of Debenhams Dublin, seen here in 2017, could have a major impact on the city's retail offer.

Arguably an underserved city centre from a retail standpoint and traditionally competing with the UK’s major high streets and those of a host of similarly sized European capitals, Dublin’s key thoroughfares were hit hard during the pandemic. 

New international brands have reversed much of that decline. 

Now a key element of any revitalisation, the former flagship Debenhams premises, along with the chain's vacant store in Cork, look set to achieve near their combined €75M asking price as the process of confirming preferred bidders comes to a close.

Two retail giants are in the frame, with Ikea and Frasers Group both mulling Dublin expansion after having opened city centre stores in the UK.

The appeal of the location — and Dublin’s demographics — is obvious. With a strong digital sector and a raft of U.S. and European tech giants offering established bases in Dublin, many of those attracted to work at their offices are young, educated and have high disposable incomes.

And despite the prevailing gloom facing the retail sector, particularly with a looming cost-of-living crisis, there is still a cohort of retailers in expansion mode.

In the case of the 210K SF, four-storey Henry Street Debenhams building in Dublin, the site opposite the Arnotts department store also includes an existing deal with fashion retailer Zara, which occupies about 20K SF.

Frasers Group already has 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.

“We continue to be big believers in physical retail, and our new stores are around double the size of a few years ago,” Frasers Group Head of Real Estate James France said. "These stores give us the chance to bring all the brands together. There are no space fillers like in old-style department stores."

Ikea previously explored buying the former Clerys department store. In recent times, the Swedish retailer has switched from large, edge-of-town warehouse stores to smaller, urban formats, such as its Ikea-anchored shopping centre in Hammersmith, London, and its upcoming Oxford Circus site at the former Topshop store.

Footfall Picks Up After Pandemic

The arrival of either Ikea or Frasers Group would be a boost to a city retail offer that suffered badly during the pandemic, but is now on the rebound. According to Dublin City Council, city centre footfall grew by 80% between January and June 2022.

While footfall around the Grafton Street area remains below pre-pandemic levels, the area around Henry Street had seen it rise 20% as of mid-June 2022 compared with the same period of 2019.

Those increases have likely encouraged some of the recent retail activity. 

In the Grafton Street area, property agent Lisney said that planning was granted in May for change of use and amalgamation of retail units at the Chatham & King development on Chatham Street to be occupied by jeweller Paul Sheeran.

Nearby, the new Lego store at 41 Grafton Street opened in August, while luxury footwear store Russell & Bromley has taken the former Fitzpatrick’s store. Dr Martens is relocating from 24 Duke Street, where it is being replaced by luxury retailer Mulberry, to 83 Grafton Street. 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. 

Canada Goose has replaced the former Monsoon store at 64 Grafton Street.

“What’s good to see is that many of the retailers in the city have previous experience of Dublin, so they know the city and are convinced by the opportunity,” Lisney Director of Retail Emma Coffey said.

Coffey added that retailers have shown confidence in returning to bricks-and-mortar outlets. Although it has taken Dublin’s retailers time to recover trade, and despite new economic headwinds, she said she feels the sector has already shown its ability to adapt and evolve.

That evolution is in process, with a number of the tech giants slowing office expansion as their workers continue with hybrid work patterns. Retail property rents have become softer than prior to the pandemic as a result, according to Lisney, though the firm anticipates increasing demand and activity for stores for the remainder of 2022.

Retail vacancy levels at the conclusion of Q2 on the prime shopping streets sat at a comparatively high 16 unoccupied units on Grafton Street and 11 on Henry Street/Mary Street, though Coffey said those numbers have come down by around a third over the autumn.

“It’s worth noting that many of these vacant units are smaller outlets and incoming retailers generally prefer to wait for the right opportunity,” Coffey said. "The prime shopping area of Dublin is quite small and concentrated, and larger stores are tending to fill very quickly.

“That said, the north side retail is slower than the south. The outcome of the successful bid for Debenhams will be important, and obviously, either Ikea or Frasers Group would be a boon for the area."

Regeneration plans for O’Connell Street also continue, with developer Hammerson submitting further planning applications for its proposed regeneration of Dublin Central. That project includes nearly 80K SF of retail and hospitality, a hotel, and other commercial and cultural uses.

The wider Dublin Central masterplan area, with over 600 feet of continuous frontage on O’Connell Street Upper, is bounded by Parnell Street to the north, Moore Street to the west and Henry Street to the south.

Dublin Shopping Centres

Outside the centre, activity also remains promising. Chinese-based online fast fashion retailer Shein is to open a pop-up store on the ground floor of Jervis Shopping Centre from 4-8 November.

Having enjoyed phenomenal growth worldwide, Shein has previously run pop-up stores in the U.S., Mexico and the UK.

The Dublin pop-up store is a coup for the Jervis Shopping Centre and is likely to draw large numbers of Generation Z shoppers to the mall during its run.

Jervis Shopping Centre has also announced that luxury retailer Tessuti will open a 21.5K SF flagship store in next year, in space formerly occupied by Topshop. The retailer sells high-end clothing, footwear, and accessories for men, women and children. It has a total of 35 stores, including locations in Liverpool, Manchester, Chester and Leeds.

"The latest Tessuti store concept is unparalleled and has been extremely well-received in our other new stores," Tessuti Head of Group Acquisitions James Air said ahead of its launch. "We are aiming to go bigger and better in Dublin."

Savills’ Darragh Cronin said the move represented a further evolution of the centre. Tessuti will be adjacent to JD, Penneys, Pull and Bear, New Look, Stradivarius, Arnotts and Zara.

Meanwhile, cosmetics brand Lush will open its biggest store in Ireland at Dundrum Town Centre before Christmas. Its 2,300 SF store will join Nespresso, which has opened a new and upsized kiosk.

“It will be double the size of our current largest store in Ireland and will be home to our full range of fresh, handmade cosmetics,” Lush Head of UK&I Property Ellen Peters said of what is the fourth Irish store for Lush.

Earlier this summer, Watches of Switzerland confirmed it will open its first store in Ireland, a Tag Heuer boutique, at Dundrum in February 2023, while Niall Horan-backed Irish clothing brand Gym+Coffee has increased its footprint and relocated.

“There’s a lot going on," Coffey said. "The pandemic ripped a sticking plaster off the retailers that were suffering, and a lot of them closed shop. But we are in a new phase now, and there are a lot of retailers showing faith in Dublin."