Lidl unveils plans to open 15 new Northern Ireland stores
German supermarket giant Lidl is planning to open as many as 15 new stores in Northern Ireland - making it the second largest food retailer here.
It is set to open 60 stores across the island, and it's understood between 10 and 15 of those could be in Northern Ireland.
The expansion would make Lidl the biggest supermarket here - bringing its store numbers to more than 50.
The discount chain currently has 38 outlets scattered throughout Northern Ireland.
Tesco is the only major supermarket which operates more outlets in Northern Ireland.
And Lidl's sales are also growing faster here than they are in the Republic or Britain.
It is eyeing up bigger properties and premises to accommodate the expansion.
And it could also add new stores to areas it already has a presence - including Belfast.
Commercial property agent CBRE - operating in both Belfast and Dublin - has been appointed to find key sites in cities and towns across Ireland.
It's understood it is exploring areas that are currently without a store, areas where there is "room for further expansion" and existing stores "that can be made larger".
And the "ideal" size of the new locations is thought to be around two acres.
The latest expansion comes as Lidl continues its crawl up the supermarket leaderboard. It witnessed growth of more than 17% at the beginning of 2015, compared with figures from the previous year.
And while it still only represents 3.9% of the total Northern Ireland supermarket playing field in terms of sales, the latest expansion should boost its place in the market here.
It has also enjoyed similarly positive growth in the Republic.
Lidl has remained tight-lipped about the details of the expansion, but a spokesman said "as part of Lidl's long-term commitment to Northern Ireland... the company intends to expand its operations".
"This will lead to increased investment, the creation of further well-paid jobs in the retail sector as well as greater choice for consumers," it said.
Lidl opened its first store in Northern Ireland in 1999, when it had just 18 staff on its payroll.
Ulster University retail analyst Donald McFetridge said its success was not just down to pricing, but in its sourcing of products and its reputation as an employer.
"They have come to be regarded as a very penetrable and rewarding employer to work for," he said.
Meanwhile, Lidl's big rivals have fallen on harder times over the last year.
Sales at both Tesco and Sainbury's both fell in the year to March 2015, compared to figures from 2014.
And Northern Ireland's biggest supermarket Tesco also announced earlier this year it was culling 43 stores across the UK in a bid to slash costs.
That included three outlets in Northern Ireland - two in Belfast and one in Ballymena.
It also put the brakes on two new stores in Carryduff and Armagh, halting nearly two decades of expansion.