'We’re always first to have the latest brands as that’s what Victoria Square is known for'
The Big Interview: Michelle Greeves
Shopping centres aren't usually the most emotionally evocative of locations. But for Michelle Greeves, Victoria Square in Belfast represents an important phase in her life.
She had left Northern Ireland to pursue a career in retail as a trainee with House of Fraser. And in 2008, after 17 years living in England, she returned to manage the chain's newest store as it was unveiled as the new centre's anchor tenant in a 200,000 sq ft space.
Mrs Greeves became manager of the centre itself three years ago and it is anticipating its busiest Christmas ever. It will be one of the most closely watched retail destinations in the province, expected to benefit signficantly from higher-than-ever numbers of shoppers from the Republic due to the weakness of the pound.
And expectations are high for Christmas performance at her old House of Fraser posting, after the company - now owned by a Chinese business - announced a £5m investment in Belfast.
As a pupil at Ballymena Academy, Michelle contemplated teaching before work experience made her realise that she didn't want to work with children.
Her first job in retail was with a Northern Ireland discount chain - a far cry from the high-end categories associated with Victoria Square.
"I'd worked part-time in Wyse Byse and after deciding against teaching, wanted to go into retail. But unfortunately, at that time I couldn't get a retail management traineeship at home."
At the age of just 18, Michelle left her home in Kells for Manchester, where she started a two-year programme with House of Fraser.
Most people who leave the province for England at such a tender age are heading for the relative security of student life with the structure of the university environment life around them.
"Doing retail management meant I had to leave Northern Ireland to live on my own. It was extremely upsetting leaving my family - my sister, mum and dad and my nanna. It was extremely nerve-wracking but it was just what I had to do."
Her two years started with six months on fragrance before moving around menswear, womenswear and homewear to get an overview of the business.
After Manchester, where she became manager of the knitwear department after two years, she moved to the Cheltenham House of Fraser - going from the bustle of a northern city to the relative tranquility of the former spa town.
Her final posting in a tour of 12 stores was as manager of House of Fraser in Sutton Coldfield before home came calling.
She looks back on that period of homecoming with great fondness. "In my previous experience I did work on launching new stores for House of Fraser, so I had that experience behind me. A new House of Fraser in Belfast just seemed like the perfect opportunity - not that I'd spent years hoping to come home.
"But it was the right time as it was a huge store and something I couldn't really turn down.
"It was unbelievably special with a lot of different emotions. It was coming home and it was about what House of Fraser and Victoria Square represented at that time.
"It was investment in that city, in the future and the arrival of so many exclusive brands to the city and Northern Ireland.
"The response we received on opening day on March 6 2008 was just overwhelming - as is the response we continue to receive."
Ironically, the opening of Victoria Square and the arrival of House of Fraser and a litany of high-end brands such as Cruise, L.K Bennett, Hobbs, Hollister and Hugo Boss - all of which were new to the city - coincided with the banking and property crash.
There were plenty of naysayers at the time, but Victoria Square's sustained success, and the pull it exerts on the shopping public, have proved the doubters wrong.
The new brands which the centre brought were welcome - and it's still striving to bring fresh brands.
"A lot of our customers would have had to leave Northern Ireland to go to other UK cities to purchase brands of those kinds eight and a half years ago - and online wasn't as strong as it is now.
"Having those brands is something the city deserved, and the range and depth of product that brought was overwhelming.
"There was huge excitement and we were changing the retail landscape in Belfast, and that was very special."
As Michelle emphasises, there is a consistent quest for novelty in retail - and a report by consultants Javelin for Belfast City Council has claimed that more high-end brands are needed if the city is to stay ahead.
And Javelin claimed that nothing short of a John Lewis department store in the city centre will keep the centre going as a sought-after retail location.
Michelle says the centre is constantly changing. "We launched eight and a half years ago but in the last two to three years, there has been improvement in the landscape and in the economy. We are close to fully-let now and we have shown such strong growth in footfall and sales in the last few years."
She agrees the public now has much higher expectations of a shopping experience - they'll want to fit in dinner and coffee as well, and maybe a cinema trip.
"That is definitely growing for people. Online shopping has become such a part of all our lives so when we do go shopping we do really want an experience.
"Online shopping is practical but it doesn't offer any sort of experience whereas going out to shop is all about the experience, the service, the atmosphere and the food."
As you might think, Michelle is no slouch herself when it comes to shopping. "I couldn't not be after 25 years in retail. I have too many weaknesses to mention when it comes to shopping. I've worked in so many areas - fashion, accessories, and so on."
The run-up to Christmas won't see any new openings, she says, though there have been some new arrivals recently, including pizza chain Zizzi, Specsavers and Ecco shoes.
"We will always continue to attract first-to-market brands, which our customers have come to expect. We do want to bring newness to the city.
"Several of our key stores have refurbished in the last few months and invested significantly - which shows they believe in Victoria Square.
"I think Christmas is always a key strength for the centre as customers come with their families to shop in a beautiful environment. Our Christmas decorations are always fabulous, if I do say so myself."
Anecdotally, the centre has noticed an increase in shoppers from the Republic though Michelle says they are not marketing themselves in the Republic - though the centre is part of the general package of Belfast attractions marketed by Visit Belfast.
And while more southern shoppers are guaranteed, the shopping environment is still fragile. House of Fraser reported flat sales over the six months to July 30 and said trading had worsened since then, amid low consumer confidence.
But that hasn't halted their ambitious Belfast refurbishment, which has included the arrival of cult make-up brand Charlotte Tilbury, as well as the extension of fragrance retailer Jo Malone, and the addition of handbags by Kate Spade and Aspinall.
"I think it's going to add a lot to the centre. Those exclusive first-to-market brands are what our customers expect.
"It just continues to show our customers that we will always continue to get these brands," she adds
Her enthusiasm for Belfast and Victoria Square makes it clear she's never regretted her decision to come back to Belfast. On her return, she met her husband Paul, who works in property development.
She's planning Christmas - and no surprise, will be starting her shopping early.