Words → Sarah McCullough

What should retail do now? We are living through the most tumultuous and consequential years in a generation — a global pandemic, and the climate emergency, are both pushing the retail industry through accelerated change. So what should retail’s riposte to this fast approaching future be? As the world reawakens after two years of intermittent lockdowns, the landscape of our towns and cities is shifting. People are leaving cities behind on the promise of remote working, greener lifestyles and cheaper rents. High streets are in decline, with empty shopfronts signalling the collapse of many familiar brands. The spectre of the metaverse is threatening to supersede traditional shopping models. Why then, has Brown Thomas chosen this moment to open a 62,000 square foot bricks and mortar store in the Dundrum area of Dublin, a neighbourhood in the middle of a regeneration?

Maybe the Dundrum store is the kind of welcoming physical space the people of Dublin need right now, if the store launch is any indication. People arrived in their droves, their first footsteps over the threshold accompanied by joyful performances by Irish musicians. And there were certainly a lot of footsteps. Donald McDonald, MD of Brown Thomas & Arnotts has been looking at figures of 70–80,00 visitors per week to his thoughtfully designed new store, the first Brown Thomas door to open in a shopping centre. And the figures show that those visitors are shopping, smashing ambitious weekly sales targets since the opening. Donald describes this new store as ‘a unique development in Irish retail, rich with interesting new shopping concepts’. With all the excitement, one gets the sense that Brown Thomas Dundrum will be a lynchpin of place-based recovery for the neighbourhood. It is certainly shaping up to be a cultural juggernaut.

"There’s been huge uptake for this new service, it reiterates the strong appetite from customers to adopt a more circular approach to fashion"

What are people buying on their first shopping trips in a post pandemic world? The Dundrum team have taken a radical approach, with a future-facing offer that puts sustainability centre stage. The all new ‘Planet Beauty’ is a completely responsible beauty concept store, where sustainability and luxury sit easily alongside one another. There are progressive shopping models that seek to accelerate their circular offer, including ‘Circular Fix’, which offers repair, eco dry cleaning and buy-back services, and ‘Rent It!, a luxury rental offer curated by Brown Thomas’s expert team of buyers. Shelly Corkery, Brown Thomas’s Buying Director and fashion maven, describes her mission to put sustainability at the very heart of the customer experience, inspiring people to make more responsible fashion choices: ‘There’s been huge uptake for this new service, it reiterates the strong appetite from customers to adopt a more circular approach to fashion’. The Rent It! service is unique in the Irish retail landscape, offering the most desirable ready-to-wear and accessories and pieces from luxury brands.

So, as well as being a beautifully-designed, destination shopping space, the store represents an opportunity for education. A slick concierge service guides customers through habit-shifting, tech-supported new services, offering a place for people to learn about new, more responsible ways to engage with the act of shopping. Spaces of reflection and exchange are built into the fabric of the building, including The Apartment, which will be used for events and experiences that transcend mere transactions. The atmosphere at Dundrum is light, airy, and fun but the store aims to play a profoundly important role in laying out a new blueprint for how to continue to enjoy fashion and beauty in the age of environmental emergency.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that this culture of sustainability runs through the heart of the store’s strategy. The very bones of the building were sourced and constructed as locally and sustainably as possible. A glance through the list of suppliers reveals builders, manufacturers, makers and collaborators from all over Ireland. Rugs by Ceadogan in Wexford, Mourne Textiles in Newry, McGuigan Furniture from Monaghan, even the iconic Planet Beauty globe prop was built by 3Rock in Dublin. Ciara Crilly, Director of Marketing and Creative, says that designing the strategy and building for Brown Thomas Dundrum during a pandemic was an oddly opportune constraint, forcing the team to look locally for collaborators and materials and revealing a ‘hub of talent’ that otherwise might have been overlooked. The ‘local’ element feels particularly timely. The Irish cultural scene is flourishing, with new global interest in Irish literature, art, music, fashion and design. And in turn, the decentralisation of creativity from global cultural cities means Irish creators are refusing the traditional pull of London, Paris and New York in favour of keeping their practice in Ireland. The Brown Thomas team have woven this phenomenon through the store strategy, using Irish talent at every opportunity, and the team intends to continue this local focus with future creative collaborations. While Brown Thomas Dundrum has a bold, global outlook, its uniquely Irish point of view will set it apart from more generic global competitors as a brand with soul.

Perhaps the most thoughtful and symbolic decision made in the launching of the new store is placing the people who make up the brand at the heart of the advertising campaign. The campaign strapline ‘Beat of a New Drum’ is imbued with the spirit of progress, a new approach to retail and a modern, a welcoming new vision of luxury. The campaign concept makes explicit the notion that this is a brand with a purpose beyond profit, one that cares about people and planet. A place of genuine exchange.

This is a team neither threatened nor entirely enthralled to the Metaverse, rather they are excited to play in the digital space.

The appointment of Galway-based artist-in-residence, Ciara O’Neill, builds on the theme of creative exchange. The Brown Thomas team were drawn to O’Neill’s effervescent, welcoming work, which they describe as a metaphor for the brand spirit.  O’Neill describes her experience of working with the Brown Thomas creative team as implicitly trusting with complete freedom to create, and that after the dark years of the pandemic her work, ‘informed by the vivid hues of Irish summertime’ is intended to ‘bring joy and happiness’. She beams when talking about the in-store experience, describing it as joyfully interactive, and fizzing with light. Customers have been beaming too, inundating the artist with Instagram messages tagging themselves with her work. O’Neill’s paintings punctuate the shop interior, pieces of public art intended to induce moments of pause, and happy contemplation. The fact that the store is hung with specially-commissioned paintings by this emerging talent is demonstrative of a brand dedicated to the cultural enrichment of people and place.

In thinking about place, how does the team contextualise this vast bricks and mortar space, the newest of its kind in many years on the Irish scene, against a backdrop of the newest digital revolution? This is a team neither threatened nor entirely enthralled to the Metaverse, rather they are excited to play in the digital space, but never at the expense of offering real life customer experience. There seems to be a clear belief that the Metaverse will coexist with, not supersede, traditional retail. McDonald lays out the interdependency of ‘brick and clicks’, noting that customers who browse online are twice as likely to purchase in the physical space. For Ciara Crilly, it comes back to the notion of connection and co-creation. She talks excitedly about plans for playful experiments in this nascent space, and the desire ‘to learn alongside our customers’. The team has embraced the possibilities of the Metaverse, with artist-in-residence, Ciara O’Neill, creating her first NFT for the brand and plans for a Saturday live music program to platform emerging Irish talent. Customers can engage in store, through social broadcast, or entirely online — the perfect example of the interplay between worlds, always with people at the heart.

So, what should retail do now? How can the industry build new foundations on fast shifting ground? Brown Thomas Dundrum lays out a clear ideology for the retail space of the future; a congregational space which advocates for bold new, more responsible ways to shop; a place which sits at the intersection of physical and digital retail, that draws on local talent and industry and provides cultural enrichment for the neighbourhood it inhabits; a place that is respectful of planetary boundaries and above all human-centred, with a strong sense of civic responsibility. Opening a 62,000 foot bricks and mortar store was indeed a bold move in an uncertain world, but in doing so Brown Thomas has ushered in a brave new era for Irish retail. Great retail is often a snapshot of contemporary culture, here it is culture-defining.