It's Independents' Day... so support your local shops
Many of Northern Ireland's independent retailers could disappear over the next decade if consumers neglect their local shops.
That is the stark warning on the day a major campaign is launched to drum up support for small traders.
Independents' Day – which coincides with the July 4 celebrations in the United States – turns the spotlight on the future of our independent stores.
It encourages consumers to buy at least one item from their local shop today, and is aimed at highlighting the positive contribution which independent retailers make to their communities.
However, Glyn Roberts, from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said there was a serious message behind the campaign, with more and more local traders under pressure from big stores and the growth of online shopping.
"We have the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, twice the UK national average," he said.
"There is a clear message here – if you don't use these stores you are going to lose them, and we need people to support them."
Mr Roberts said there was a duty on people to get behind their local shops.
"We are urging that local shoppers make it their civic duty to support independent traders on this special day and explore the very best of our town and city centres," he added.
"It shouldn't just be about independent retailers today – we would also encourage consumers to support their local independent pubs, restaurants, cafes and other small businesses."
However, Karise Hutchinson, head of the University of Ulster's business and enterprise department, said there was an onus on independent retailers to do more to attract consumers.
"In today's society it is the consumers who call the shots, it's not the independents, and they need to give us a reason to shop there," she said.
"Because of the internet, everyone is competing on a global scale. There has to be an incentive for consumers to shop locally."
Dr Hutchinson believes independent retailers may have to change, with specialist stores faring better in the future.
"It's about finding what is unique and different, and capitalising on that. It's not about imitating the big players, it is about doing something different and unique, which customers want."
The Belfast Telegraph spoke to a range of independent retailers and many stressed the importance of customers for success.
Katharine Montgomery, from Harrison Fashion Boutique on Belfast's Lisburn Road, said regular customers were the mainstay of the business.
"Thankfully we have good enough loyal customers, some of whom are in every week," she said.
"It is all about Facebook and Twitter and doing promotions. With all these big franchises, it is hard work for us to compete."
William Busby from M. Piper fruit and vegetable shop on the Belmont Road in Belfast said: "Obviously over the years there has been a bit of competition from the bigger stores but mostly we do alright.
"We always have our regular customers but we have quite a few come in from Bangor."
Today's campaign has received the backing of Finance Minister Simon Hamilton.
"Small businesses in particular have been under pressure during the economic downturn," he said.
"Local traders not only play an important role in boosting growth by creating local and diverse employment opportunities, but keep our town centres and communities vibrant and welcoming."
Mr Hamilton said that the Government and the local community must work together to help businesses grow.
We need your help... a plea from 20 independent traders
William Busby (39) is a regular face behind the counter at M. Piper fruit and vegetable shop on the Belfast's Belmont Road. The grocers was established in 1961.
"I have worked in Piper's for 24 years. All the produce is first-class quality. We've a great choice of fruit and vegetables, all top class.
"Obviously over the years there has been a bit of competition from the bigger stores but mostly we do all right. We always have our regular customers but we have quite a few come in from Bangor. They come in and have a chat, and older people like that, too. We try to encourage new customers to come in and give us a try."
Leeoran Craig (21) opened Doris & Jeannie on the Belmont Road in Belfast in November 2012. The shop sells restyled furniture and home accessories and has been enjoying the boom in home furniture recycling.
"We opened two years ago and worked hard to get the shop looking quirky and different. You have to have the edge. It is an enjoyable effort. It is good fun, that is what it is all about here.
"We are stockists of the Annie Sloan chalk paint and hold workshops here. That is what we are about, trying to inspire people to be creative.
"Come in and have a play around."
James Brew (32) has recently taken over one of east Belfast's best-known chippies, the Silver Leaf on the Belmont Road. He's all in favour of the Independents' Day initiative but hopes it has long-term benefits.
"I have been here for eight weeks. I went here as a kid and I want to get it back to being one of the best chippies in the East. Obviously, as an independent we have our competitors, the garage forecourts and the chains. Everyone knows the Silver Leaf. It is about getting the vibe of your local business, building up a relationship. It is not just about calling in on a Friday for a fish supper. We need people to call in other days of the week, too."
Jerry Russell (67) owns the Just For You card and gift shop on the Belmont Road with wife Ann. Established in 1985, it sells a wide range of greetings cards and gifts, ladies accessories and baby gifts, with party accessories on the first floor.
"We set a trend. It was originally a card shop and developed from there. We are just constantly updating and have over 100 suppliers. We do cards that have a meaning for people looking for something special.
"For us it is just a matter of trying to do what we do best – making people welcome, giving them time to browse and enjoy the experience before going to relax in one of the many coffee shops here."
Brenda Kearney (51) took over Cooley's Jewellers in Shipquay Street, Derry, from her father Danny, who opened the business 34 years ago.
"Being able to offer a personal, friendly service has been an essential element of our success. Jewellery features at key parts of people's lives like engagements and weddings, and people want that personal touch which you just don't get with the click of a button on a computer.
"We've a range that will suit any budget and we introduced our 'History of Derry' collection in 2004, which has grown considerably. It's really popular, not just with people from Derry but with tourists and ex-pats."
William Brown (67) is a well-known face behind the counter at the Arcadia Deli on the Lisburn Road. On the go since 1965, he recently handed over the reins of his business but occasionally helps out.
"I think the customers come here for the fresh food, the cheeses, the patés, and we do a big trade in hampers.
"We have locals and those from further afield. You have to know your customers and we have our regulars, as you can see. People are used to the personal service.
"I hadn't heard of Independents' Day but I think it's a good idea and would say to people to pop in if they haven't been in here before."
Vanessa Todd (25) has just opened Pluckit on Belfast's Bloomfield Avenue, a new one-stop beauty shop with everything from brow treatments to fake tan.
"People won't have to go to lots of different places, they can come here for their gel nails and Sothys facials.
"We have to try to have everything in one place to give people a good reason to come in. We wanted an eye-catching front and a 1950s-style vibe.
"We didn't want the salon to be too clinical, we wanted it to have a nice atmosphere.
"Come in and see us today on Independents' Day."
Naoimh Quigg (39) manages Quiggs Florists in Great James' Street, Derry, with her dad Maurice, who's been trading for 30 years.
"Flowers are used to mark big occasions in people's lives from birth to death and everything in between. You can get flowers from supermarkets now, but people don't go there for the really special times.
"We give our customers a very bespoke service so they get exactly what they want, and during a wedding for example we are available to our customers all day.
"We've an online service, which is popular with people who want to know that the flowers they send to people back home in Derry will be beautiful and on time."
Joscha Lemeke (22) helps run the Camphill Home Bakery and cafe in Holywood, which has won multiple Bridgestone Guide awards. The bakery also works closely with local adults with special needs.
"I think people appreciate the quality of the food here. Everything is organic and healthy. As far as possible, we try to make sure local food is processed and we have gluten-free and vegan options.
"I think it is a different atmosphere here perhaps to some other cafes, and with some of the staff who work here there is definitely an international vibe.
"I think Independents' Day is a great idea. Come and visit us."
Trevor Kingston owns Home, Field and Stream in Enniskillen, a one-stop shop for country dwellers.
"It has been under this name since 1985, prior to that there has been a shop here for 100 years. This business has a cook shop and wedding list service but also extensive fishing and shooting, garden furniture and barbecue equipment. It's a big store but we also have a major online presence.
"We have people coming from all over Ireland. Fermanagh, between the G8 and the Queen's visit and just Lough Erne in general, is really on the map.
"I wasn't aware of Independents' Day for traders here but it is a good initiative."
Paul Donnelly (46) works at Donnelly's on Belfast's Springfield Road. It's a general store selling everything from fancy dress outfits to hardware and electricals.
"I have worked here for 30 years. If we do not have it we will try to get it. That's what we do.
"It's hard for independent traders these days just trying to do one line.
"The council could bring our rates down a bit, though.
"The council doesn't really do anything for me. It won't empty my bins without me paying for it.
"I would welcome anyone popping in today. I'll take anybody's money!"
Jason McDaid (42) bought the Icon Restaurant on the Dungiven Road, Derry, six years ago and transformed the former nightclub into a plush restaurant/wine bar.
"When we took over we closed the nightclub and that went down well with the local people. Being in business in the Waterside is a lot tougher that in the city side, and yet we pay almost the same rates. All the big events are held in the city side and people are reluctant to cross the bridge. The Beach Boys' concert was held in the Waterside and did help us. We need the council to hold more things here.
"We find once people come to Icon they will return."
Heidi Steffen (61) is a familiar face in Holywood, having owned the Iona health store for the past 29 years.
"We have a lot of local people come to see us and a lot of people from further afield, such as the south of Ireland," she said. "We have built up a good reputation and sell some unusual things, such as herbal remedies. Lots of times people want to come and ask for advice.
"People think independent shops like this can be expensive, but we weigh out goods for our customers and they can get good value compared to supermarkets.
"My customers say to me: 'Make sure you don't ever close'."
Orla Smyth (35) is a lawyer and entrepreneur who runs Kaffe O, a hip new Scandinavian coffee shop on Belfast's Ormeau Road.
"As a lawyer I was seconded to Copenhagen and I fell in love with the coffee. I used to spend my days thinking this is what I want to do. The coffee is hand roasted by Ricco Sorenson, it is a really high quality double espresso, a blend of Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Ethiopian beans. All our crockery is Danish, our chairs are Hay chairs.
"I'm a big believer in giving something a chance and I will always be a lawyer. I am passionate about the Ormeau Road and love how it has developed over the years."
Katharine Montgomery (24), from Harrison Fashion Boutique on the Lisburn Road, said regular customers were the mainstay of this successful independent business.
"We have the Masai range, popular with those aged between 30 and 60, and Capri, all very loose fitting. The Guess brand is also popular, and we do have people come in around graduation time.
"Thankfully we have good enough loyal customers, some of whom are in every week. It is all about Facebook and Twitter and doing promotions. With all these big franchises, it is hard work competing.
"I'd encourage anyone passing today to call in and see what we have to offer."
Lisa Hamilton is a supervisor at Leslie's Home Bakery and coffee shop and works alongside Attracta Nolan. Lisa is a familiar face for many locals at this tasty retreat in Enniskillen, which has been trading for 30 years.
"The crusty bread and wheaten are always very popular. Our summer trade has all the holidaymakers alongside the regulars. If you ask for something you don't hear 'no'. We go the extra mile. We know all our regular customers by name. There are not many bakeries in the town, but there is a Tesco. I think what makes us different is that all our baking is done on the premises. Drop in for a sausage roll and a cup of tea."
Paul Boyce (34) is an operations manager at the Errigle Inn on the Ormeau Road. Owned by the McGurran family, the pub has been open since 1935.
"There are always changes, we have to keep up with the current trends.
"There are over 30 draught beers here, for instance, some we source ourselves.
"There is a lot of regular trade with a real variety of people, aged from 20 to 90, because of the different bars in the Ormeau Road area.
"We try to stay fresh and source products such as local coffee brewed in Belfast. It has to be the right type, as coffee is a big part of our trade."
Avril Lavery has run the Harlequin boutique on Belfast's Bloomfield Avenue for the past 25 years.
"We get quite a lot of wedding guests to cater for but we have also needed to cater for more casual dressing as well. Our customers get more personal assistance that they may not get in the bigger stores.
"For an independent shop like ourselves it is about getting to know your customer as best as you can and really helping them.
"We have been fighting to get the rates reduced on Bloomfield Avenue. We believe lower rates would encourage some of the vacant stores to be used. A bit of a clean-up in the area by the council would be good."
Arlene McCloskey (48) is married to Peter Oliver, and helps run Oliver's, the latest independent coffee shop to open on the Belmont Road in Belfast.
"We have been open for three months and are doing well. All the food is home-made on the premises, which I think sets us apart from some chains. I think customers can really taste the difference, even the jam is home-made.
"Stephen Chisholm, who won the Great Irish Bakeoff, also bakes our bread.
"I think there are enough customers to go round all the coffee shops here. On a Thursday, Friday and Saturday we are turning people away in their droves."
Stephen Robinson (43) manages Corrie's Farm Butchers in Holywood, with the shop celebrating its first birthday today.
"We have our own farm in Newtownards and have our own EEC boning hall to produce all the beef. People know where our produce is coming from and appreciate the quality. You can go and visit our farm and we have an open day every year. We also have a full delicatessen range and sell everyday items, making us a one-stop shop. We'd love people to come and celebrate our birthday and Independents' Day."
Reporting: Joanne Fleming and Donna Deeney
Photographs: Jonathan Porter, Martin McKeown and John McVitty