Kildare Village has been told not to sell new-season clothes at reduced prices. But are discount outlet centres necessarily a threat to high-street retailers?
WHEN YOU CONSIDER that Kildare Village operates in an industry where being on trend is de rigueur, it’s ironic that the outlet centre has been prohibited from being fashion-forward. In a recent decision, An Bord Pleanála determined that the sale of hot-off-the-catwalk clothes is in breach of the centre’s planning permission.
When The Irish Times dropped in to the bargain-hunters’ Mecca earlier this week for a spot of investigative window-shopping, in-season styles were conspicuous by their absence. Not a hint of colour-blocking or a stitch of tangerine in sight. The Karen Millen store had none of the new-season dresses on sale at the brand’s outlet in nearby Whitewater Shopping Centre, in Newbridge. Though its rails contained a number of items currently available through the retailer’s website, the discount was the same in most cases, with several dresses cut from €199 to €95.
Reiss had a selection of coats that we spotted in its Grafton Street store last winter, while the shorts, skirts and tops on offer at Jack Wills, the UK’s answer to Abercrombie and Fitch, were leftovers from last summer and autumn. Pretty much the only bikini in Jack Wills was a pink-and-navy number that this writer bought last summer, which is now discounted by a third. All of the sales assistants we spoke to were quick to stress that their stock is at least a season behind.
So why did local retailer David Jones complain to the planning authorities about the sale of new-season stock by the outlet’s tenants? Was it much ado about nothing or a symptom of a deeper disagreement between small town-centre retailers and multinational out-of-town discount outlets?
In June last year Jones, who operates the Tommy Hilfiger and Best Menswear stores in Whitewater, raised the issue with Kildare County Council. The council requested more information to back up Jones’s claim that Kildare Village was competing with high-street outlets by selling new-season stock and that, in doing so, it was in breach of its planning permission. He submitted a list of items that he said were on sale in Karen Millen outlets (a brand selected “purely as an example”, he claimed) in both Kildare Village and Whitewater on October 4th, 2010. The items, which he described as “mid-season”, included a black jersey dress, lace black “boot shoes” and a black dress with studded sleeves.
Furthermore, claims an industry expert, one retailer in Kildare Village had gone as far as having the same window display as its high-street counterparts. (Different outlets for the same brands are sometimes owned by different franchises, so they can be competitors.)
“It’s fundamentally contrary to proper planning ,” the industry expert says. “It’s not sustainable for any town to have to compete with that.”
There is also an anecdote that because Clarks, the shoe shop, does not offer a measuring service in its Kildare Village outlet, parents were getting their children’s feet measured at Clarks in Whitewater, then driving 10 minutes up the road to buy similar shoes at Kildare Village. Also, the Pepe store in Whitewater has closed down while the outlet in Kildare Village is still trading, although no doubt many factors contributed to this closure.
Value Retail, which operates Kildare Village and nine outlet shopping villages in Europe, is said to have written to a number of its Kildare Village tenants last year, telling them they could not sell current-season stock.
A spokeswoman for Kildare Village, which has about 60 shops, told us that it “would take seriously any suggestion that there have been any breaches by brands of their contracts, and would take appropriate action”. Unlike factory outlets in the US, where retailers sometimes sell cheaper lines manufactured for those shops, the business model of Value Retail is based on enabling brands to sell end-of-season or surplus stock at discounts of at least 33 per cent. Kildare Village says its contracts oblige the brands operating there to sell only out-of-season merchandise, and that it checks stock regularly.
In any event, Kildare County Council decided that the sale of new products and in-season merchandise was allowed under the terms of Kildare Village’s planning permission. The council “felt then there was no issue” and was “satisfied everything was in order”, according to a spokeswoman.
In December Jones appealed this decision to An Bord Pleanála. An inspector’s report provided by the board reveals arguments, counterarguments and general hair-splitting by agents representing both Jones and the owners of Kildare Village. Ultimately, the planning authority found that the sale of new products or in-season merchandise in competition with products being sold on the high street at the same time would constitute a “material change of use” and would represent a breach of planning permission.
Despite repeated attempts to discuss the case with him and to hear his views on Kildare Village and discount outlets, Jones refused to comment for this article. Kildare County Council, which has responsibility for enforcing planning rules, told us it is considering An Bord Pleanála’s decision. A spokeswoman for the council says its planners are “not experts in fashion” and may need external assistance.
In any case, there may not now be a need for enforcement, given that the brands operating in Kildare Village seem to be toeing the line. But what about the broader question of the impact of discount outlet centres on nearby towns? Has Kildare Village helped the local economy or is it taking business from the area’s retailers? According to Breda McHale, of Newbridge Chamber of Commerce, Kildare Village has had a positive effect for local retailers.
“A rising tide raises all boats,” she says, adding that there is a good “crossover” of shoppers between the outlet centre and Newbridge. Shoppers often take in the two destinations in one day, McHale says.
A retail expert says Kildare Village is a “great asset” for the area, just as long as it’s not competing directly with town-centre stores.