Upmarket food retailer Waitrose is set to move into the Northern Ireland market, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The supermarket, which is part of the John Lewis group, has teamed up with a developer to investigate sites in the province.
It's understood the potential sites are located in the greater Belfast area, including Holywood in Co Down and the south and east of the city.
Speculation has linked Waitrose to the site of Holywood rugby and cricket club, which was put on sale with an asking price of £5m by North Down Borough Council last year.
The land has now been agreed for sale - the proceeds of which are to be used to fund new council sporting facilities - and a preferred developer has been selected.
But no contract has been signed as negotiations are still taking place and the identity of the developer is a closely guarded secret.
A spokeswoman for North Down Council said: "The council has not received any direct approach from Waitrose in terms of either a planning application or expression of interest for any site in Holywood."
North Down Alliance councillor Andrew Muir said people in the town were broadly in favour of a retailer operating on the site, which is close to the town centre.
He added: "I think the sale of the site to a retailer like Waitrose would be good news for Holywood although there have been some concerns about traffic management."
But a spokesman for Waitrose said: "While we certainly wouldn't rule out Waitrose opening a store in Belfast in the future as part of longer-term aspirations, I'm afraid we don't have any plans for a store there at this time."
John Lewis operates its business on a 'partnership' basis, with employees sharing bonus windfalls. Yesterday the partnership announced strong results which will result in a bonus pot of £194.5m for 76,500 staff.
Waitrose said operating profits rose by 3% to £274.9m, with 20 new stores being opened in 2010.
Donald McFetridge, retail studies expert at the University of Ulster, said Waitrose would be a welcome addition to Northern Ireland's retail offering. "It is an upmarket brand. Sainsbury's is the most prestigious existing supermarket brand in Northern Ireland but Waitrose would be a step up."
A planning inquiry into a proposed development by John Lewis at Sprucefield, which was first mooted in 2004, has been delayed a number of times.