My very first ‘real’ job was in Clerys.
It was in Principles (long lost to the recession) on the first floor, where fashion went to die. I remember laughing together with my friend at the weirdness of it all. It was like stepping through a time warp – a sort of purgatory of oversized knickers and brightly coloured but ‘practical’ last minute grandmother-of-the-bride wedding garments – complete with your standard elevator music to sooth away any sudden inclinations for energy or excitement. The oily smell of cheese toasties and slightly stale milk wafted from the cafe obtrusively around every corner, and made you think of wet Tuesdays and head colds. ‘Too old fashioned, too expensive‘, my Nana would regularly comment, at the tender age of 83.
My friend and I however, loved it.
The floor and stock room staff were fantastic. There was a sense of walking into a little village – a second home – when you came to work. People from all walks of Dublin, who shared the same bubbly enthusiasm, empathy, energy and community. Clerys was not a team for those ‘on the ground’, it was a family. Myself and my friend happily whiled away the hours there chatting about the weekend, college exams, the lads…
If you wanted to be really proactive, you could always check the spacing between the untouched hangers (one finger width apiece). Although the display merchandise had to remain strictly untouched. As mere university students, we hadn’t the acumen to swap an accessory around or – God forbid – change a top on a mannequin. There were professionals for that…
It’s not that we were trying to be unproductive, it’s just that potential customers rarely crossed the dull lino into our sacred square of sales territory. And when they did, it was more likely to be for what I called free ‘session’ – sharing long tales of family troubles, dicky hips, grandkids’ birthdays and weekend rituals – rather than a purchase. You get an awful lot of that in retail. The real reason it’s called retail therapy I suspect has, unfortunately nothing to do with buying stuff.
Sometimes they’d squeeze your hand and call you a lovely girl.
I loved that – to feel appreciated and useful by perfect strangers.
It was just a shame it meant nothing to the sales report at the end of the day.
Summer came and a j1 called. So off I went to San Diego in 2007. It was the same year of the release of that Coronas song. The blistering sunshine soon made me forget all about that strange Dublin store. The only visits over the years that followed were in last minute moments of desperation… just one of the shops in the long line of ‘what the F*CK was i even looking for and does it even exist?!‘ shopping expeditions (you know the ones). Men, I think, are particularly familiar with the concept around Christmas Eve. In the retail jobs that followed in boutiques and upmarket stores over the next few years, we would sniff them out a mile away – like a shark smelling blood. Guaranteed big ticket sales with little effort, however, a very rare phenomenon. But that was the one and only tiny ‘shop window’ of opportunity Clerys had built around itself – the passing, panicked trade with occassion deadlines.
You see the problem with Clerys was there was nothing special about it.
There was no specific thing you’d head to Clerys for. Something that the marketing and end to end experience as a customer would constantly remind you of as the ‘reason to visit’. The Cafe was void of character. The makeup, was much the same as on Henry street, only less glamorously presented. The windows were no talking point. – save for the odd Christmas bow. The was no clear identity, no brand. Unless that is, you count the heady nostalgia we all have for something most of us are too young now too remember and was nothing to do with actually stepping into the store – the Clerys’ clock and the beautiful architecture. And I don’t, count it.
It was – in essence – all fur coat and no knickers.
So naturally, it generated very little in the way of sales of either.
You see, when you cater for everyone – when you put Radley next to River Island and iPhones next to ladies mid range scarves… you cater for no one. There was nothing that said ‘That’s soo Clerys‘ you never thought ‘I must pop into Clerys for… the atmosphere, ambience, products…’ over anybody else.
There was no magic.
The very last visit I had to Clerys was the week of the relaunch.
A clean slate. Everything – from the furnishings, marketing, layout, products, business structure, displays, technology, contracts and even the bloody cheese toasties could be renegotiated, reconsidered. Time to take the risk. I was enthusiastic to see what the new marketing strategy was. It would require a new positioning, quality storytelling… What myself and my mother got instead was a rather impossible game of ‘spot the difference’ (the escalator was changed… maybe?) and a greeting by the monotone drone of (presumably) Father Stone over the speaker announcing a ‘once in a liiiiife-time…offer“… to make ones way carefully to the top floor for a free, plastic red potato peeler.
That was the revolutionary new Clerys – same wonderful newly-enthused staff, a voiceover and.. a potato peeler?!
The management of Clerys have not just done their staff a disservice in the last week.
They have been doing them an abominable disservice for the last ten years. They had a responsibility to innovate, to question, to move forward and they did nothing. They had a responsibility, to be brave, to lead their staff through the rough seas of a crippling recession – not to cower in the past. To bravely mark themselves out against their competitors. To stand for something.
They did not.
Over the last decade retail has seen emerge a cutthroat environment of rapidly growing online sales, two week season turnarounds and a globalising retail market. So in store experience needs to offer far more… or at the very least needs to know who it is, what it sells and who the bloody hell it sells to.
Everyone and everything half heartedly is not a strategy. Nor is new teddy bears or free potato peelers.
Another wonderful landmark in Irish life bites the dust. And brands wonder why the strategy of using ‘Hey, we’re Irish if you look back far enough‘ messaging isn’t working for consumers anymore. It can’t work in a world where foreign retailers take better care of their staff and community than many home grown businesses.
Shame on them all.