After 30 years in the fashion trade, married couple Kieran and Donna Coogan decided to close the doors of their clothing retail chain, Swamp, for the final time in early January. The decision to close created up to 80 job losses. 

Swamp, a women’s clothing store, had seven outlets across the country that ceased trading immediately on January 10, 2020 and a meeting of creditors will take place at the end of January to appoint a liquidator to the company. 

“The closure has come about as a result of the ill health of its Managing Director and the difficult trading conditions that are prevalent today in the high streets,” the company said

The Coogan’s calling it a day for Swamp could be an unfortunate isolated incident for the medium-sized retail sector. However, bigger businesses, especially in fashion retail, are finding themselves in similar situations.

The restaurant sector has already enjoyed a terrible start to the year, with a string of high profile closures. Those working at the coalface of the insolvency industry say that high street retail is another sector under siege.

So just what is the state of the market? And can Ireland’s retailers weather the brewing storm?

More than meets the eye in corporate insolvencies

High rents in the cities, the rising costs of insurance added to the increase in the minimum wage are negatively hitting many businesses and industries. However, figures may give hope to those in the retail sector as insolvencies in the industry continually decreased over the last decade. 

David Van Dessel, partner in Deloitte’s restructuring services, says that there is a regular and consistent decline in corporate insolvency activity in the retail sector. Yet he warns that these figures are not a true reflection on how well the retail sector is faring. 

“I use the words corporate insolvency activity on purpose, because the statistics are only showing the companies that have entered a formal insolvency process,” he says.

The figures in the above graph only show the companies that have entered a formal insolvency process. Many company directors, particularly in smaller enterprises, may not have the financial ability to deal with the wind-up of their company in an appropriate manner, according to Van Dessel. Instead they may cease trading, close the door and let the company be involuntarily struck off. 

“In a high-end nice coffee shop, they may enjoy reasonable margins and produce excellent products that are consumed there and then. They’re not battling the internet.”

David Van Dessel

The graph above illustrates the dramatic rise in insolvencies in 2011, the highest it has been in the retail sector in the last decade. This was a symptom of the crash as people did not have as much disposable income during the “recovery” years. The retail industry subsequently suffered. 

Over Van Dessel’s 30 years of experience, he says that the availability of consumer spending has been vital for the retail sector to thrive. Ireland has been doing relatively well economically with 5.61 per cent GDP growth in 2019, but this is predicted to drop slightly to 3.34 this year and fall again to 2.98 in 2021,  according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

This does not mean it is fair game for retail outlets nationwide. Although those based in cities have heftier rental costs to bear,  the availability of consumer spending is not evenly spread across the country, according to Van Dessel. The median annual equivalised disposable income in 2017 was highest in cities at €23,497 and lowest in towns outside cities at €17,433, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO). 


Profit and loss

Profits of Arcadia Group Multiples (Ireland), the parent company of menswear store Burton, the womenswear stores Evans and Dorethy Perkins, amounted to €645,000 in 2018 – a fall of 65 per cent. The group is cutting staff costs by reducing the numbers employed from 356 to 324. 

Married couple and controversial British billionaires Philip and Cristina Green are behind the Arcadia Group. Green was almost stripped of his knighthood over a pension deficit scandal.

Topshop and Topman are part of the Arcadia Group as well. Last year, Green stated that he plans to close a number of Topshop stores including six that are dotted around Ireland. This will cause around 520 job losses. 

Along with the Arcadia Group and Swamp, others in the fashion retail sector are finding themselves in difficult circumstances financially. 

Figures from Oasis Fashions, another womenswear retailer, showed its pre-tax profits took a dive of 77 per cent from €1.8 million to €400,000 in one year. It has opted to cut 11 jobs. Those in Oasis described the environment of retail as “difficult” to the Irish Times in 2017. It seems since then, their fortunes have not improved. 

Laura Ashley, a renowned textile design company, is in the news as well after the company’s most recent accounts became available. Pre-tax losses of the company dropped by 80 per cent from €368,126 to €73,913 and the company brought in revenues of over €7 million. It, too, reduced the number of staff employed from 86 to 72.


Adapting to change

With a good economic backdrop, the retail sector continues to be relatively stable compared to other commercial outlets such as restaurants. Restaurants must juggle the same large costs such as rent and insurance while dealing with the increase in the Vat rate, which is already responsible for several restaurants shutting their doors in 2020, with more predicted to follow. 

Retail is going through a change though, as consumer’s behaviours continue to evolve with the rise of online shopping. Its impact could be physically seen in Ireland on November 29, 2019, otherwise known as Black Friday. A large green sign draped down the entrance to St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. It was a Black Friday advertisement for the multi-billion dollar global giant Amazon. 

What we’re seeing then is steady growth in the sector and significantly more of that growth going to online retail,

Arnold Dillon

Amazon entered the Australian market in 2017, and, despite a slow start, is on track to dominating the country’s retail sector. Some major closures happened within the last year for the Australian retail sector. Harris Scharfe, a homeware chain with 66 stores, closed last December. Around the same time, fashion chain Bardot arranged to meet with receivers, before Napoleon Perdis Cosmetics and Shoes of Prey followed suit. 

When Amazon first entered the Australian retail market, a large supermarket empire, Coles and Woolworths, offered free same-day delivery for customers that spent between $150 and $300. Despite their efforts, Amazon may pose a threat to them too, after they launched their AmazonFresh grocery store at the end of 2019 in Australia. 

Many may use Amazon for its cheap offerings and fast delivery, but one Irish retailing giant warned against customers using it. Penneys, a clothing outlet in 15 markets around the world, wrote in a tweet that despite having no commercial partnership with Amazon, Penneys products are being resold on the site by third parties at higher prices.

The changes the retail sector is undergoing is happening in different ways and at different levels, says Van Dessel.

Smaller companies are struggling to be recognised on the vast expanse on the internet where there is international competition. If a retailer struggles to be seen on the internet, it could have a knock-on effect on the footfall into its physical stores. Bigger companies are embracing the challenge in a different way. The bigger the company, the more well-known their brand is to customers. They don’t need to fight for recognition or space on the internet. Instead, they use their bricks and mortar stores to create more of a shopping experience for the customer. Shelly Corkery, fashion director at Brown Thomas, spoke about this during her interview with The Currency’s Leadership Columnist Anne Harris last year. 

When asked where he sees more retailers running into difficulty, Van Dessel stated that the clothing sector has a higher spend per unit and is competing with a lot of other retailers, whereas other commercial businesses are devoid of this problem.

“In a high-end nice coffee shop, they may enjoy reasonable margins and produce excellent products that are consumed there and then. They’re not battling the internet,” says Van Dessel.


Anold Dillon was freshly appointed the new director of Retail Ireland, an arm of the lobby group Ibec, in December 2019 and officially took up the role in January 2020. He previously worked in the communications department in Ibec and said much of his work focused on Brexit-related matters.

“Retail is undergoing a period of ongoing disruption,” he says.

Dillon adds that Irish retail suffered a very difficult crisis during the crash and it took a long time to recover. At the same time as this recovery, online shopping was a big disruptor to the sector.

“What has happened over recent years is that bricks and mortar retailers would have seen online as a threat to their business. I think now it’s just part and parcel of their business because they are branching out themselves and seeing online and different digital platforms as opportunities. But at the same time it has disrupted the market place,” says Dillon.

“What we’re seeing then is steady growth in the sector and significantly more of that growth going to online retail,” he adds.

Now, he says there are noticeable trends creating positive effects in the Irish retail sector. Including the drop in unemployment figures, people having a significant increases in disposable income.

Although retail yields in the Irish market softened over the course of last year in line with trends across Europe, prime retail rents remained relatively stable, according to the CBRE who are not expecting any significant change to prime quoting rents in the Irish market in 2020.

“I think the broader economy is doing very well and that obviously is providing a very positive backdrop to what’s happening in retail,” says Dillon.

The “strikingly” low inflation rate across the board in the retail sector means prices are dropping. While consumers now have more disposable income to spend, this added with the low prices is good news for retailers but also means that there is an increasing amount of competition amongst retailers, according to Dillon.


Along with empires such as Amazon having an impact on the in-store transaction with a customer, technology also has a huge hand to play. Apps are being specifically made for smartphones to make online shopping easier. In a 2019 report, PwC found that the ubiquity of mobile commerce is happening even faster than previously anticipated.

The report showed that consumers are more conscious of sustainability and ethics than ever before. This is a positive for retailers with tangible shops, as often less packaging and travel is needed when a customer is buying their stock in-store.

Some retailers are now charging consumers for their returns as a result of sustainability concerns and the prohibitive costs associated with returns, which may result in a shift back to physical retail, stated Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE), the largest commercial real estate services company in the world, in their 2020 Market Outlook for Ireland.

Fast fashion

Fast fashion, a term used to describe cheap clothing that is made and sold in bulk, is a problem for both physical stores and online ones.

Fast fashion is now known for its toll on the environment and its links to slave labour, meaning many consumers now are opting to boycott fast-fashion chains and brands. This is ironic in the sense that fast fashion was created in response to consumer demand. Many big retailers are now trying to tackle the issue in an effort to avoid finding themselves in the same situation as Forever 21.

Fast-fashion brand Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy last year and shut all of its 350 stores around the globe. Since the attitudes of consumers changed, causing mass retail casualties like that of Forever 21, similar retailers are quickly making changes to survive.

Inditex, the parent company of clothing retailer Zara, projects it will use only organic, sustainable or recycled cotton, linen and polyester by 2025. Profits at Asos, a completely online fashion retailer, dove by 87 per cent in the first half of its fiscal year. Since then, Asos has promised it will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. H&M announced last year that 160 of its stores will close after they suffered financially. The Swedish retailer aims to put more emphasis on its Conscious line as well. This includes organic and sustainable clothing options and gives discounts for shoppers who bring in clothing to recycle.

“Inadequately prepared for Brexit”

Christmas 2019 was a success for the Irish retail sector as consumer spend reached approximately €4.9 billion, up from €4.75 billion in 2018. Meanwhile, the Central Bank estimated that the total e-commerce spend before the end of 2019 reached over €21 billion.

With Brexit uncertainty a constant issue for Irish retail, the success for the industry during the Christmas period was important as many do over 30 per cent of their annual trade over that six-week period, according to Retail Ireland Director Arnold Dillon.

Those in the retail industry are so worried about the uncertainty of Brexit that Retail Excellence Ireland group chief executive David Fitzsimons wrote a letter on the issue to Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Business Heather Humphreys last September.

He wrote: “As you are aware the [retail] industry employs over 282,000 people in every town and village in Ireland. The vast majority of retailers currently source product directly from the UK or if not, they buy it from a local wholesaler who sources from a UK supplier.”

Fitzsimons added that he believes over 2,000 retail community members and the wider industry are “inadequately prepared for Brexit.”

Brexit and its consequences are still unclear as the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union in a matter of days with only a transitional deal in place.

Ireland’s retail sector remains optimistic

There are several retail schemes due to be completed in Ireland this year, with a lot of focus on development in Dublin city, further increasing the rural/urban divide for Irish retail. These include the repositioning of the Pembroke District at Dundrum Town Centre and the redevelopment of the Blackrock Shopping Centre in south Dublin. There will also be other developments completed in Dublin this year including South Great Georges Street, Chatham and King and Central Plaza. Plus, the French sport retailing giant Decathlon will be open for business this year too.

Other new retail schemes are due on site in the Irish market during the next 12 months at Cherrywood and Carrickmines Phase 3 in Dublin’s south suburbs, the next stage of construction at Blanchardstown Town Centre in the north suburbs and The Square Town Centre in Tallaght.

The multi-use scheme with a large retail component which is being built in place of the old Clery’s department store on O’Connell street in Dublin’s city centre will be further developed this year. As will the Grafton Place scheme near Trinity College.

Outside of the capital, the Gateway Retail Park in Galway and the Bray Town Centre in Wicklow will commence trading this year. Aside from these, there is a drought of big developments approaching completion. One promising scheme is due to go on site this year. This is Phase 3 of the Manor West scheme in Tralee Co Kerry, which is expected to go under construction this year.

New brands are expected to emerge in the Irish retail market in due course as a result of the new developments above, according to CBRE.

For now, the retail industry is still adapting to the changes in its environment. The future for Irish retail rests on the toss of a coin.