News that John Lewis is planning to enter the Irish market by opening a department store in Dublin will send shockwaves through the city’s close-knit retail scene.
For a country of 4 million people, Ireland is now generously served with retail. And when it comes to department stores, few cities house more big names than Dublin.
From the uniquely upmarket Brown Thomas to the Northside landmarks of Arnotts and Clerys, the city has a long-established culture of indigenous department stores that Dubliners hold a strong affinity to.
There was also value-oriented department store Roches, which was swallowed up by Debenhams in 2005 and the more recent arrivals of House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols from the UK, both of which chose the out of town Dundrum centre to make their Irish debuts.
So if, as has been reported, John Lewis is set to anchor Chartered Land’s E1.2 billion (£956.6 million) development on O’Connell Street, it will be in good company. But it will probably be a more challenging opening than most of John Lewis’s.
When it opens in a town in the UK, the arrival of John Lewis is usually greeted with the sort of welcome reserved for the second coming. But Dubliners already have department stores that offer the traditional approach to service, which is makes John Lewis stand out in the UK.
The established stores also have the not-to-be underestimated benefit of being Irish and it remains to be seen if such a quintessentially English brand could tempt loyal shoppers away from their traditional haunts on the north bank of the Liffey.
It was nearly so different. If John Lewis’s plans had gone as intended, its first store on the island of Ireland would now be up and trading. But interminable planning difficulties have made the opening a store at Sprucefield, an out-of-town retail development by Westfield on the outskirts of Belfast, seem as distant a prospect than ever.
Why John Lewis was so fixated on being out of town in Belfast, rather than locating in its newly bustling city centre, has never been made quite clear, but the success being experienced by retailers, including rival House of Fraser in the city’s new Victoria Square development, suggest it may have missed a trick.
And while Belfast has been underserved by quality retail, the same couldn’t be said about Dublin. It may have a formidable track record, but if Dublin does turn out to be John Lewis’s first foray outside the UK, it won’t have things all its own way.