Just imagine it: how we are going to make the future as bright as can be

Irish retail outlets must join with all the stakeholders to develop a monumental plan to restore the bustle of life to our villages, towns and cities

The English Market in Cork is a wonderful example of how to entice people back to city centre shopping

David Fitzsimons

This day last year, Saturday March 14, 2020, proved to be the most telling day in the history of Irish retail.

The first case of Covid-19 in Ireland had been diagnosed just a few weeks earlier — and, having witnessed a significant erosion in retail revenues in the prior week, I decided to spend the day phoning non-essential retail CEOs to see how the day was fairing.

The feedback was deeply concerning. Customers had gradually become fearful of shopping and staff were equally anxious. Hearing the deep concern expressed by so many retail CEOs, I scheduled a conference call for the following morning.

Approximately 40 CEOs of significant retail operations joined the call. The overriding sentiment was that we were facing a serious crisis, but it would be best to stay open and await the Government’s public health advice. After all, we were not medical experts.

The public health advice never arrived, and by March 18 most of the non-essential Irish retail sector had shut down.

Twelve months on, there is much we have learned from the experience.

In some ways, Covid has delivered some positives. It perhaps reminded many of us what is important in life. And it certainly highlighted the monumental contribution retail and hospitality makes to the State coffers — the near 400,000 jobs, the wonderful experiences those businesses provide, day in, day out.

But it has been an incredibly challenging 12 months for all impacted businesses. Both commercially and from a mental health perspective. To be closed is completely alien to such progressive entrepreneurs.

Likewise, it has been no walk in the park for those which remained open.

I have specific sympathy for pharmacists. Their retail sales have imploded, many do not qualify for any of the grant aids — and all the time they have been professionally serving their patients, many of whom arrived at their door with Covid symptoms. A very challenging situation.

One of the greatest positives that presents itself now is that fact that we can recover from Covid with a bounce, an almighty bounce.

Yes, Irish towns now face a challenging outlook, but having spent close on 25 years as founder and former CEO of Retail Excellence, I have learned how positive outcomes can be achieved if we all work together.

The towns with the greatest success to date diligently established Town Teams involving local government, chambers of commerce, businesses, gardaí and other community stakeholders.

If Covid has taught us anything, it is that when the economy finally opens back up, we need to be prepared — we need a monumental plan to support our towns. Some commonsense actions worth considering include:

Public Realm

Over the years, in towns up and down the country, I have witnessed the positive impact of a simple painting and planting scheme.

Most towns have a blank canvas, which (with a little bit of work) can be transformed into a place that inspires. This in turn can have an incredibly positive impact on overall town cleanliness standards.

The evening economy is also of great importance, and a town illuminations plan can deliver incredible results. During Covid many local authorities have removed a few parking spaces and, in their place, added seating areas, street furniture and so on.

These should remain beyond Covid. Providing citizens with seating and a space to gather can only be a good thing.

To understand public realm that works we do not need to recreate the wheel. An afternoon in Waterford, Westport, or indeed Kildare Village, will demonstrate what brilliant public realm looks like.


In the short-term, Covid will negatively impact occupancy levels in all towns and cities. Some businesses have already announced their closure. Banking and fashion retail have witnessed the greatest fallout.

That said, we do not have to accept significant levels of vacancy in our towns as a fait accompli.

We can look at innovative uses for vacant space and create rates- and rent-controlled zones to appeal to SME artisan food and craft producers. There is no reason why many towns cannot have a mini-English Market of their own.

To solve the occupancy conundrum, it’s worth considering appointing an occupancy champion to every county council. If a building falls vacant, something happens about it.

A case in point is the now vacant Debenhams units. Some of these would be ideal for sports retailer Decathlon, which has had a stellar start to trading in Ireland.

That said, to make this happen our occupancy champion needs to sell the locations to Decathlon, and do everything they can to welcome the French retailer to new trading opportunities.

A final point on occupancy is the need for creative use of space. By way of example, the local enterprise offices in every council across the country do an exceptional job supporting SMEs. I am fairly sure that some of these SMEs would consider having an office or retail space in their local town centre.

Living above the store

Over 20 years ago I worked with the Dublin City Business Association, whose CEO at the time was Tom Coffey — a man ahead of his time. He had a brilliant understanding of how towns and cities should function, and was the first person I heard promoting the many benefits of ‘living above the store’.

Twenty years later we still have an undersupply of housing, and a significant stock of vacant above-store space.

While successive governments have put in place grants to promote living above the store, the grants fall well short of the cost of construction and renovation to meet all the necessary fire regulations.

In a post-Covid world, a significant opportunity exists to motivate property owners to convert vacant above-store space into luxurious above-store accommodation. The benefits of an in-town living population is immeasurable.

Many continental European towns have cracked this nut and it is now time for us to act.

Footfall and town commerce

There is so much that we can do to enhance town footfall, and so many local micro-economies.

Having co-founded the Me2You Gift Card Company, I have first-hand experience of the power of town gift card schemes.

The gift card is purchased by local employers to thank their loyal staff, they enjoy the tax relief from the Benefit in Kind scheme (BIK), and the gift card can only be spent in the local town centre. Everyone wins.

Other initiatives to enhance commerce can include launching a citizen database, allowing a town team to email and text citizens about upcoming events.

Remember, everyone wants mid-week convenience and weekend experiences — and towns can deliver on both opportunities.

Having founded Retail Excellence and led the organisation for close on 25 years, I have had the honour of getting to know so many great retailers, local authority CEOs and their senior teams and so many other stakeholders, all fundamentally important to the future of our towns.

In May 2020, having suffered a health scare, I felt the time was right to leave Retail Excellence. The board appointed Duncan Graham my successor. Duncan has a wealth of retail experience and is doing a wonderful job leading the organisation.

Thus, my final piece of advice to all retailers is that you must join Retail Excellence.

As we look to the future months it is clear that we will all reopen safely. At that point, the “experience economy” will boom.

I am not talking about us all heading to Disneyland, I’m talking about browsing the beauty hall in Brown Thomas, or touching the fabric on a Louis Copeland suit, maybe smelling the plants in the Arboretum in Carlow, or wearing a fine piece of jewellery in Neville Jewellers in Cork.

We will be back enjoying the visual splendour of Irish designed giftware in a Kilkenny Design store, browsing the vinyls in a Golden Discs store, having coffee in Hook and Ladder in Limerick, and going for nights out — a meal, a movie, maybe capped off by a few pints. Imagine that!

There is one thing I am sure of. Before Covid-19, shopping was the most popular pastime in the world. After Covid-19, it will remain the most popular, experiential, wonderful hobby enjoyed by millions across the globe.

Soon we will all be able to delight in everything that retail has to offer.

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