Retailers: A Holywood scandal They lack Eire's protections so independents are in fighting mood over the multiples says Tony Brown Holywood has none of the glamour of its near namesake. But what it lacks in film studios, it really makes up for in shopping centres. The area on the eastern edge of Belfast has been blitzed with new developments. But what out of town shopping centres can do for commuters could be the death-knell for the town itself. The go-ahead has been given to the D5 Harbour Exchange, and this could be another nail in the coffin for the region's small retailers. Sainsbury has been given permission to build a giant superstore in the retail complex, adding to the proliferation of retail sites in east Belfast. Bryan Gray, chief executive of the newly formed Northern Ireland Independent Retailers Association, says D5 is the latest example of planning legislation gone mad, he says, with little or no regulations or controls in place. Despite opposition from Belfast City Council and North Down Traders, the complex opens in 2001. The industry is blaming the influence of Westminster for the decision. In the absence of the local assembly, environment minister George Howarth decided to ignore the "marginal" impact of the development on the local economy and give the green light to the multi-million pound scheme. An industry source says the issue is not over yet and could be subject to a judicial review. "Belfast City Council and North Down Traders have objected to the proposals. It was originally rejected by the council but then approved by a minister from Westminster. We don't think the issue is dead yet," says the source. So, after years of competition and infighting, the independent sector has been galvanised into action by the arrival of the mainland multiples. The mistakes of out of town shopping centres already made in the rest of the UK are being ignored, says Gray. "The government is granting new planning permission nearly every day. There have been 65 new superstore applications in the last two years, in a province with only 26 major towns. "We have to look at some of the restrictions adopted in Eire," says Gray. "The Groceries Orders have prevented the development of stores over 25,000 sq ft and below cost selling ­ whereby stores offer discounted goods to increase footfall ­ is banned. "These measures serve to protect the independent retailer." But the multiples are also a threat to local suppliers and the province's eating habits, he says. "Northern Ireland is the most brand conscious area in Britain, and by and large the same variety and range of brands are no longer available." In many ways, the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly has come as a blow to the new organisation. "The loss of the Assembly means the loss of a local voice, and we have to go to Westminster to have issues considered," says Gray. SuperValu business development director Philip Campbell agrees that planning permission has been given to the wrong people in the wrong places. In many cases, the local population could be turned off by the development of out of town shopping centres. "There is a growing backlash to the developments. There are just too many for the population size in and around Belfast," he says. SuperValu itself is planning to expand in the province, but its focus is on high street stores of around 6,000 sq ft. Its Centra stores are even smaller, suited to the tag of convenience store with a starting size of around 1,500 sq ft. The fact that nearly all its managers are also owners has a positive effect when it comes to meeting local needs, says Campbell. SuperValu also acts as a delivered wholesaler, and has 200 local suppliers on its books, but managers have the leeway to set their own promotions and deal with local needs. "It allows the manager entrepreneurial freedom in a retail partnership with a delivered wholesaler. It is something the multiples have great difficulty in doing," says Campbell. The major independent groups in Northern Ireland, such as Hendersons, JJ Haslett, Musgrave, Nisa and Costcutter, have already donated the necessary up front funding to get NIIRTA off the ground. As the approved wholesaler for Mace in the province, Haslett has an interest in seeing to the survival of independent c-stores. Haslett's delivered business director Tom Uprichard echoes many of the sentiments of Gray. While the company's own turnover has been increasing year on year, it admits it is fighting for a larger share of an ever decreasing pie. "The multiples are very clever at the PR game," says Uprichard. "The fact is that since 1988, 93 superstores have opened with the loss of nearly 25,000 jobs from the traditional sector. Jobs have been transferred into the market, but the net effect is a full 3% reduction in employment in the food retail sector. "A lot of small but profitable businesses have gone to the wall meaning wealth has been extracted from the local economy." The next stage for NIIRTA will be a recruitment drive, designed to bring some ­ if not most ­ of the 900 independent retailers on board. Membership costs will be minimal, along the same lines of joining up to be a member of the Association of Convenience Stores or RGDATA in the Republic. In fact, those two organisations are examples of best practice that Gray would like to follow, and if he can get close enough to them to work together on common issues, then all the better. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}