Employees at one of Northern Ireland’s best-known retailers face an uncertain future after the company went into administration.
Fultons Fine Furnishings, which has traded for 50 years, is the latest locally-owned store to hit financial difficulties during the recession.
Fultons fell in to the hands of administrators yesterday only a week after its property arm, Fulton Fine Furnishings Limited, suffered the same fate.
The furniture division of the 50-year-old firm consists of two shops at Balmoral Plaza in Belfast and another at Queen Street in Lurgan, from where the company started off half-a-century ago.
The move puts a total of 57 jobs across both the retail and property divisions at risk, but administrators PwC in Belfast have pledged to continue trading before deciding whether to sell the business or liquidate it.
“The administrators' intention is to continue trading,” Stephen Cave, joint administrator, alongside Paul Rooney at PwC, said.
“Once the immediate assessment of the trading and financial position is complete, we will have a clearer picture of future options.
“Our immediate priority is to communicate with the key stakeholders of the business, including employees, customers, suppliers and tenants.”
Fultons’ downfall follows a perfect storm consisting of downturn in the retail sector, in particular at the high-end level, and in both the commercial and residential property sector which the company has also been heavily involved in.
Still, the property business recorded a profit in the latest accounts filed at Companies House for the year ended February 2010 of just over £12,000, but that is sharply down on the £1m it made in the year to the end of February 2007.
The opulent Boucher Road unit in Belfast, which houses both a retail offering and a popular restaurant, epitomises the high-end flavour of the brand.
Its furniture found willing buyers throughout the boom years in Northern Ireland up to 2008, but tightening disposable income over recent years has meant fewer people are able to afford such tastes.
Donald McFetridge, a retail analyst at the University of Ulster’s Ulster Business School, said customers are nowadays becoming increasingly canny.
“Consumers have been forced to shop around for bargains in all sectors — including furniture and electrical — and, unless they find attractive or tempting deals, they are reluctant to part with their cash,” he said.
“Competition in Northern Ireland in the furniture sector is extremely tough with Lurgan (where Fultons have their base) possibly being one of the main towns in the region with an over-abundance of furniture outlets.”
Fultons’ demise follows on the heels of Dekko, another relatively high-end furniture retailer, which didn’t go in to administration but decided to close its doors in 2011, blaming cheaper competitors. Another locally-owned store, Laser Direct, went into liquidation in 2010.
It’s thought the likes of Swedish furniture giant Ikea and a move into household goods by some of the major supermarkets are providing the main draw for potential customers.
Donald McFetridge felt more retailers could go the same way as Fultons.
“This latest casualty will come as something of a blow to retailers trading at the high-end of the market.
“It is now clear and apparent that no one is exempt.
“Every retailer in every sector remains vulnerable as markets, nationally and internationally, remain volatile.”
The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said local stores experienced the worst of the recession.
“The non-food retail sector is experiencing the worst of the recession as people don’t have the same disposable income and those who do are putting off buying non-essential major household furniture,” said chief executive Glyn Roberts.
“With Ikea and the UK supermarkets taking a large part of this market, it is putting immense pressure on furniture retailers.”
And he was worried that if Fultons close, the trend could continue.
“In 2011, over a thousand independent traders in Northern Ireland closed.
“We are worried that this trend could double in 2012,” Mr Roberts added.
The luxurious store with the wow factor which offers ultimate shopping experience
By Victoria O'Hara
A uniformed doorman welcomes customers with a smile inside Fultons Fine Furnishings in Belfast. As you step into the family-run furniture shop the quality of the welcome is an immediate indication of the high-end goods that fill the huge store in the Boucher Road.
Walk around the 80,000 sq ft flagship store and you cannot help but feel stunned.
Established in Lurgan, Co Armagh, the 50-year-old business opened a Belfast branch in 1991, and moved to its new purpose-built premises in 2006.
Every nook and cranny of the impressive space has display after display of highly desirable pieces of furniture ever so tastefully put together.
Ten different departments over two floors are filled with elegant showrooms for bathrooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, offices and kitchens to give you inspiration for that ‘wow factor’ space.
And instead of the usual run-of-the-mill prints on walls as in so many other stores, complementing the showrooms in Fultons is an ‘international art gallery’ of paintings.
While you can admire the beautiful household items — or ponder what to buy — you can stop off and enjoy a coffee at the the foyer espresso bar.
It also boasts a restaurant on the first floor with views over the city.
In a testimonial on its website Nick Worthington, chief executive of Dreams, describes it as an “inspirational shopping experience”.
He wrote: “It has spared no expense on fitting the shop out, from the Aladdin’s cave of everything you could ever possibly want for the home on the ground floor through to the exquisite displays, beautifully laid-out roomsets and the impressive restaurant, where you can enjoy a tasty lunch to a pianist’s music on the upper floor.
“This interiors store really is the ultimate shopping experience.”
But while the beauty of the layout and items are stunning, so, too, are the prices.
Glancing at the price tags, one nest of tables is currently priced at £1,190 and a king-sized bed costs more than £6,000.
And as news of the interiors store going into administration broke it appears customers are wanting an ultimate shopping experience at Fultons.
Billy Drummond from Belfast brought his seven-year- old daughter Faith to the coffee bar.
“We really enjoy the coffee shop, it has a good atmosphere, and it is a nice place for children too,” he said.
The youth worker added: “I suppose we would come once a fortnight. To be honest I’ve never bought anything, it is a little bit too expensive.
“But it is sad to hear about places like this —local companies — go into administration.”
Ann Black, retired, from Whitehead enjoyed lunch at the restaurant.
“I would come up about once a month.
“It is just such a beautiful store. The quality of the furniture is second to none,” she said.
“I suppose over the years I bought what you would call functional items from Fultons. I have a chest of drawers in the house. I started to come when it was in the old place.
“It is just very sad to hear.”
Bob and Karen Dawson from Bangor said the news of the popular store going into administration was a “sign of the tough times”.
Mr Dawson said: “We would come up over the years and enjoy walking round looking at the furniture.”
However, the couple, both teachers, added: “To be honest, as lovely as it all is, it is very, very expensive.”
“It is an unfortunate sign of the times,” Mr Dawson said.
“I just don’t think they way things are the average person can afford to shop here now, people are cutting back.
“I think a lot of people come up, have a look at what they have done and then try and buy something similar elsewhere cheaper.
“But we still like to come up, we can always look and dream!”
Joan Eakin, meanwhile, from east Belfast, said she was “disappointed” by the news.
“I am a long-time customer and I would just be very disappointed to see it go,” she said. “It is sad to hear that there is a possibility for job losses. For me, it is the best shop you can get.”
If we were looking for a poster child of the recession, Fultons would be it
By David Elliott
Given the type of customers Fultons serve, and — probably more importantly — the markets it has invested in, the Northern Ireland institution has done well to survive for as long as it has.
Its demise perfectly highlights how cruel the economy can be. If we were looking for a poster child of the recession, Fultons would be it.
It’s easy to argue that the company was playing a dangerous game, aiming at the minted consumer who has plenty of disposable income to spend on a £10,000 lamp (yes, really), but during the boom times demand was high. It was feeding a demand, and one which showed no signs of slowing — even when the first rumblings of the downturn started to emerge.
But now that the recession has impacted on spending on everything from houses to hairbrushes, Fultons has found itself mentioned more often as a meeting place for coffee than a place to splash the cash.
From a retail point of view, it is following in the footsteps of Dekko (although Dekko closed the shutters on its own accord) - both were targeting a more discerning customer than those companies which are said to have drained customers from the home-grown shops.
The likes of Ikea and the supermarkets have provided a compelling offering to hard-up consumers, but even they are suffering in a retail environment that takes no prisoners.
You only have to take a walk down any major high street to see high-end shops replaced by value units such as pound stores, which only this week vowed to create 3,000 new jobs after posting bumper profits.
But as far as Fultons — and many other firms which were wooed by bricks and mortar in the boom years — is concerned, it’s not just about the shopfront business. It was also tripped up by its investments in residential and commercial property. Retail is tough enough at the moment, but throw a bit of property into the mix and you could easily give yourself a headache.