M&S said it was keen to grow its business in Northern Ireland even though the current arrangements with the trade protocol made investment decisions “much harder”.
The grocer is opening a new food hall at the Bridgewater Retail Park in Banbridge on 10 May, creating 60 new jobs in the area.
The new store will include a wine shop and in-store bakery, as well as “high-tech ways to shop” such as M&S’s queue-skipping app option Scan and Shop.
But local customers will not be able to access the full food range at Banbridge as M&S is continuing to struggle with the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on supply lines to its stores in the country.
The retailer currently moves goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the grace periods, which the UK government extended indefinitely last September as talks with the European Union stalled.
The Grocer understands the extension was “helpful” at maintaining the offer to customers but was not a complete solution for the challenges posed by the proposed Brexit legislation.
As a response, the company has increased its supply from the island of Ireland – for instance, its sausages and meatballs are manufactured there – but said that approach was “not possible” for all M&S products.
“We are a serious employer in Northern Ireland with over 2,000 colleagues and around 1,600 farms in our supply chain – including many that serve our Great Britain market,” the spokesman said.
“We have served customers in Northern Ireland for over 50 years and our priority is to make sure we continue to deliver the same choice and great quality range that our loyal customers have always enjoyed.
“That’s why we need the UK government to agree a solution with the EU that takes into account the safety and high standards in the UK, streamlines and digitalises processes and removes the burdensome checks on every delivery.”
The upscale grocer’s bosses have been some of the most outspoken in the industry in regards to the proposed Brexit trade agreements that affect imports in the island of Ireland.
Earlier this year, M&S Food MD and soon-to-be company co-CEO Stuart Machin wrote a letter to Boris Johnson calling for the UK and EU to approve a technology-based solution to end all checks and certifications on supermarket goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
The letter, which was backed by 14 other industry heavy hitters, also detailed other proposed solutions to achieve “frictionless trade” between the two regions.
Chairman Archie Norman has also repeatedly called for changes to the current proposed trade agreement, which he has claimed would result in more, not less, red tape.
In December, a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin found that food and drink trade between Ireland and Great Britain was hit the hardest after EU-imposed checks on British goods in 2021.
“We want to continue to offer the same great value to our customers and that’s why we have raised awareness of the challenges and cost pressure the industry faces to help find solutions and prevent this being passed on to our customers,” the M&S spokesman told The Grocer.
The company currently has 22 stores in Northern Ireland, with 11 of those ‘Simply Food’ c-stores. According to The Irish News, two new M&S Food halls are in development for retail parks in Derry and Coleraine.