What’s selling in Ireland

A dispatch from the furniture stores on the Emerald Isle

I last visited Ireland in October 2019, well before Covid. Returning with a student group this summer, I aimed to discover what changes Covid has instigated and what Ireland lost to the global pandemic.

We are here in Galway, on the west coast, for a month of multimedia journalism.

Also on my “to do” list was to check out the retail scene in furniture here to compare it with trends back home.

On the Covid front, Galway looks no different than much of America. Some shops, restaurants and pubs didn’t make it, but most hobbled along. Everyone has “Help Wanted” signs posted. Of course, the airports we navigated to get here presented nothing less than madhouses of panic, flight cancellations, super tense travelers, and war-torn desk agents. And Covid is again on the rapid rise across the island. Average emergency room waits in Ireland are more than 11 hours.

That isn’t a misprint.

The scene is much brighter in furniture, where, according to sales associates in two leading stores here, supply chain issues have largely smoothed out and consumer demand is robust and growing. Demand is being driven in part by a red-hot real estate market, including the markets for second homes and rentals.

I visited Harvey Norman, which, judging by newspaper ad pages (Ireland wondrously still has a vibrant print culture), is a dominant player, and Next, a hip, youthful department store that sells across as nearly as many categories as Amazon, both in strip center stores and online. (See more photos from the visits here.)

My goals in visiting Next included seeing the re-launch of the Laura Ashley line. The company went into bankruptcy in 2020 blaming Covid. Gordon Brothers snapped up the name and intellectual property, announcing big plans to bring the label back to fashion, beauty and the home.

A $650 retail Sherlock arm chair at Next updates traditional charm in a muted tartan cover.

The retail partner for Ireland is Next, and the re-launch should have begun by now. However, nothing has hit the sales floors yet, at least not in Galway. The senior sales associate here said she hasn’t seen product from the British brand in more than two years, which fits the bankruptcy timeline, and has heard no word about any kind of Laura Ashley return.

Next has more than 500 stores in the U.K. and Ireland, and digital operations reaching into 70 countries. Gordon Brothers is best known for working with “distressed” assets and liquidations by buying low and then resuscitating the brands.

Giant from Down Under

Located in the same shopping center with Next is a big, multi-floor Harvey Norman location replete with a restaurant and large atrium. The fast-growing discounter sells furniture, consumer electronics, bedding, computers, flooring and appliances through a 265-store chain, mostly in Australia and New Zealand, but also in Ireland, Asia and Slovenia.

According to Hoovers, Harvey Norman owns the ground under about a third of its stores and leases it to franchisees, who receive administrative and advertising support. The Harvey family owns about 30 percent of the company. As I mentioned, scanning the many, many newspapers here, the retail chain is an aggressive advertiser, along with another big chain in Ireland, EZ Living.

The most recent financials available from Harvey Norman show the stores posting a 300 percent gain in pre-tax profits for the fiscal year ended June 30 last year, finishing at 31 million euros, or roughly $33.3 million. Revenues rose more than 22 percent to $4.1 billion.

The store I visited opened in July 2020, just as Covid began sinking its teeth into the global economy. Two Harvey Norman locations opened at about that time, with a third launching in Sligo about two and a half hours away in November that year. These additions bring the chain to 15 stores in Ireland and two in Northern Ireland, and establishing more of a retail presence in the west of Ireland seems to be an emphasis.

According to the company, its Irish stores are out-performing Ireland’s retail sector overall, posting “double-digit sales increases and market share growth across all product categories.”

This impressive start came despite Level 5 lockdown measures that, among other things, closed off furniture and bedding from retail traffic. Electrical and computers were allowed to remain open. During my visit, I saw a steady stream of Irish lads walking out with loss-leader electronics.

My visit to Harvey Norman

Having visited hundreds if not thousands of furniture showrooms over the many years, I was genuinely impressed with the displays at Harvey Norman. Lots of fresh looks at key price points, immediately perceived value, simple pricing schemes, and a courteous, responsive, knowledgeable sales force left very little room for complaint.

Because we are leaving in a few weeks, I didn’t buy anything, so I can’t describe what happens after the sale, but the sales associate I spoke with wasted little time discussing supply chain challenges and their impact on delivery. She said most items could be delivered in two to six weeks, but that the maximum wait time because of these challenges could be 16 weeks. She told me she could look up any item on the floor and give me a more precise window for delivery.

If I were asked to spot trends, and as a recovering journalist, I really don’t need to be asked, I would say two-tone looks, natural wood veneers, an abundance of wood-and-metal combinations, shelving anywhere it can be added in case goods, and lots of jewel tones in
upholstery lead the way.

Looking for what might be missing, I was struck by the fact that Harvey Norman’s leather upholstery omits the word “leather” anywhere on the signage, indicating either a sensitivity to people’s distaste for knowing cows died in service to their seating (I know, I know: leather for furniture is a byproduct) or that the retailer doesn’t want to get into the nuances of leather, leather substitutes and fabric covers in terms of what frames are available in at various price points. Or oversight.

The Dolce & Gabbana-licensed range cooker, flue and refrigerator combination that greeted me as I entered the store is a head-turner. Retailing for just over $18,000, the ceramic ensemble makes quite a statement, and it alerts the visitor that while discount goods are Harvey Norman’s bread and butter, there are options up the price ladder for the fashion forward.

Well, my furniture and column-writing duties done, it’s time for a pint of Guinness at the Skeff, our favorite pub on Eyre Square, where a peat fire warms you and the snugs welcome you in. (It’s freezing here, but I’m not complaining.) Sláinte to you yourselves!

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

View all posts by Brian Carroll →

One thought on “What’s selling in Ireland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our Newsletter for breaking news, special features and early access to all the industry stories that matter!

Sponsored By: