A Northern Ireland independent is thinking big in its determination to see off the mainland multiples says Simon Mowbray

These are the first images of the £15m store which should help Northern Ireland independent Curley’s compete even more successfully with the major multiples. The 50,000-plus square feet superstore is set to be Hugh ‘Curley’ Kennedy’s latest weapon in the battle to stave off the invasion from the likes of Tesco, Safeway and Sainsbury.
Set in the grounds of the retail guru’s expanding Kennedy Centre in west Belfast, where Curley’s has been trading in a store half the size for more than 20 years, the new outlet will boast underground parking for around 350 cars (on top of the centre’s existing outdoor parking for many more), wide aisles, open forecourts and a petrol station. Two new distribution centres, one of around 25,000 sq ft for groceries and another of some 10,000 sq ft for its off-licence division, should come in handy, too. It is hoped the project will attract more than 100,000 loyal shoppers every week to generate till receipts exceeding £50m a year.
This will propel Curley’s into the top 10 of The Grocer’s list of Top 50 independent grocers, with an annual turnover of around £75m across its supermarket and off-licence empire.
Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the new store could provide Sir Ken Morrison with his sternest test in the province (if his deal with Safeway ever goes ahead) as the proposed new Curley’s store, set to open by the end of 2005 subject to planning approval, will be within a stone’s throw of what is currently a Safeway outlet. Not that that will deter the steely determination which has been a characteristic of Kennedy’s 34 years in grocery retailing. “It is not in my nature to give up,” says Kennedy. “There is still room for independents in Northern Ireland which offer something different.”
Different is an apt word. For example, he claims to know about half of the 60,000 customers who currently visit the Belfast store each week. And he can regularly be seen strolling out of the centre at night carrying his own unique briefcase - a shopping basket jammed full of files.
But it is not just quaint peculiarities or man-of-the-people tactics that have fuelled Kennedy’s impressive rise up Northern Ireland’s retail hierarchy from the humble beginnings of a single corner shop on Belfast’s Glen Road more than 30 years ago.
The ambitious plans he has for Belfast have already been implemented, albeit on a smaller scale, at Kennedy’s Dungannon store at The Oaks Shopping Centre, also owned by the Kennedy business.
Kennedy’s son Stephen looks after the Dungannon operation and it is impressive. A 35,000 sq ft floorspace contains wide aisles to create a feeling of open space for shoppers, while meat and fish counters full of local produce have a loyal following and a separate gated alcoholic drinks section within the store contains a plethora of wines from around the world.
In short, it looks like just the kind of store that Tesco, Sainsbury and co would be more than happy to have their fascia above.
“The new Belfast store will be very similar to what we already have in Dungannon,” says Kennedy, “only bigger. In Belfast we have really become a victim of our own success. The store is over-trading and we are having to re-stock during the day when we really want to do it during the evening.
“I think some of our customers are getting frustrated with how busy the store is and we also want to do more non-food, something which is already performing very well for us.”
However, it’s not just about making life easier for his shoppers that motivates Kennedy and he admits he “would love to have the same problem in the new store in 20 years’ time”.
In the meantime, Kennedy is on a mission to find retailers to take up space in the Kennedy Centre when the existing Curley’s supermarket is carved up into retail units. The centre is already home to a list of high street names including Boots, Poundstretcher and Barratts which all cohabit alongside a multi-screen cinema.
As for the future, Kennedy says his latest plans should leave his larger rivals in no doubt that he intends to stay very firmly on the province’s retailing map.
“We will always continue to expand the company,” says Kennedy, who already has plans brewing for the company’s 13 off-licences, “and we will look at opening more supermarkets in the future.”
But doesn’t he have any reservations about spreading Curley’s efforts too thinly?
“Before the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury came on the scene we already had significant competition. In Belfast, we had Wellworths next to us and Crazy Prices down the road, which is now a Tesco.
“We have been trading for 35 years and the daughters of mothers who first started shopping with us back then are now customers. There is an amazing amount of loyalty. We will just carry on with what we do best. Our customers seem to like that.”