Retailers in Lisburn have raised eyebrows in neighbouring Belfast after launching a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign capitalising on recent traffic chaos which left motorists fuming.
The campaign — run by Lisburn City Centre Management — urges shoppers to avoid the stress of trying to get in to Belfast by shopping in Lisburn instead.
Large billboard advertisements have sprung up on commuter routes into Belfast, while the message is also being plugged heavily on Translink buses and shelters.
Its message plays on the major traffic problems, sparked by new bus lanes, which brought Belfast to a grinding halt in September and saw the number of shoppers coming to the city centre drop.
While the congestion has eased, Allen Ewart, chairman of Lisburn City Centre Management, told the Belfast Telegraph the problems were seen as “opportunity” to help Lisburn traders.
“You don’t sit back and do nothing,” said the DUP councillor.
“All cities and towns are having difficulty with the economic downturn and anything I can do to bring people into Lisburn I am happy to do that.
“I’m interested in the traders in Lisburn. I’m not particularly interested in the traders in Belfast. That is why we targeted the Belfast area.”
With festive trading officially declared open with the switching on of the Christmas lights on Saturday, Belfast retailers are hitting back.
Above: One of the ads on a Belfast bus
Joe Jordan, president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, said the billboards were a sign of “how much of a competitor Lisburn sees us as”.
“I think Lisburn has sunk to a new low,” he added.
“I would like to emphasise that in the past there was a ‘hiccough’, with the traffic in Belfast but the problem has now been reversed.
“I wish Lisburn all the best for Christmas and I’m sorry that we’re still such a thorn in their side.”
John Moore owns and runs SS Moore’s Sports in Belfast. He is a director of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau.
“I think something like this is a bit below-the-belt,” he said.
“Belfast is still the best retail hub of anywhere in the province.”
A spokesperson for Belfast City Council said it would be “inappropriate” for Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson — also a DUP councillor — to comment on another council’s initiative.
“The Lord Mayor remains confident that Belfast will continue to attract shoppers throughout the Christmas period,” she said.
Transport Minister Danny Kennedy recently announced a strategy to expand park and ride services in Belfast, Lisburn, Newry and Londonderry — as well as free park and ride for late night shopping and Saturdays — in a bid to boost festive trading.
An embargo on roadworks on strategic routes in the Belfast area has also been introduced.
The aim is to send the message that Belfast is “well and truly open for business this Christmas”.
Meanwhile, the Lisburn campaign received a mixed response from shoppers in the city.
Jenny Moore, a training support officer at Southern Eastern Regional College, said she prefers Belfast: “I wouldn’t be put off going to Belfast, there are just more places to shop.”
But Yvonne Stanford (40), a hairdresser who works in Lisburn, said she supported the campaign: “I live and work in Lisburn. I do think it is important to keep shopping local.”
Reality is one in five outlets lies empty
By Lindsay Fergus
The dire picture facing Northern Ireland’s retail sector has been underlined by a new report showing we have the highest number of empty shops of any region in the UK.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) survey, published yesterday, confirms that one of five shops across Northern Ireland is now lying empty.
This marks a rise in the vacancy rate from 12.9% this time last year to 20%. It also a marks a jump from 18.5% on the previous three months.
The research underscores a difficult period for Northern Ireland’s embattled retail sector which has been hit hard by a downturn in the economy, a wave of redundancies and a squeeze on consumer spending.
The BRC first began surveying vacancy rates across the UK in October last year. Since then the number of shops pulling down their shutters for good has climbed steadily.
While Northern Ireland now stands at 20%, the UK average is almost half that at 11.3%, according to the BRC.
The survey also examines footfall and while it found a significant jump in the number of shoppers in the province, this has not resulted in extra spending.
According to BRC, there are 14.4% more shoppers here than this time last year. Meanwhile, the UK average has seen a 0.4% drop.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said: “This quarter we’re seeing a very mixed picture. It’s really encouraging to see footfall rising so dramatically, but the fact that one in five shops in Northern Ireland is now lying empty makes for grim reading. Shopper numbers may be on the up, but continuing economic worries mean that this isn’t translating into increased spending.”
According to Mr Connolly, the Assembly is not doing enough in terms of investment and planning to help the struggling retail sector.
Big retailers who have had to call in the administrators recently include sports shop JJB, furniture store Fultons and Clinton Cards.
And the collapse of construction giant Pattons and the 700 redundancies at FG Wilson will be a further blow to consumer spending.
Mr Connolly said: “There’s been some welcome Government action to help.
“Speeding up the introduction of the business improvement district legislation to formalise and fund bodies specifically aimed at helping town centres is great.
“But, to avoid more job losses and more empty shops, there needs to be stronger support for investment and an understanding that over-regulation and uncertainty in areas such as the planning process do not make Northern Ireland a better place to do business.”
Earlier this month the Executive redirected £200m worth of funding towards projects it hopes will boost the economy and promote jobs in Northern Ireland.
The measures include an extension of he small business rate relief scheme to provide 3,500 business with a 20% |discount and the freezing of car parking charges in |towns and city centres until 2015.
WHAT BELFAST HAS TO OFFER:
Featuring stores such as House of Fraser, Cruise, Hobbs, Coast and LK Bennet. Car park has 1,000 spaces. In the city centre you will find Zara, Harper, Oasis, Avoca, Karen Millen, Molton Brown and Cath Kidson.
Located on Royal Avenue, Castle Court features 80 stores and more than 15 places to grab a bite to eat. It also has a car park with 1,600 spaces. Shops include Debenhams, Starbucks, Boots and Gap.
Titanic Belfast, City Hall, the Ulster Museum, Belfast Zoo, Botanic Gardens, Albert Clock, Cave Hill, Harland & Wolff, Stormont Castle, Odyssey Arena, Belfast Cathedral and St. George's Market.
The newly refurbished MAC and Lyric Theatres, the Grand Opera House, Ulster Hall and Odyssey Arena.
The Belfast Christmas market runs at Belfast City Hall every day until Thursday, December 20.
WHAT LISBURN HAS TO OFFER:
On the outskirts of Lisburn featuring Marks & Spencer’s Northern Ireland flagship store, Sainsbury’s, B&Q and Argos.
Bow Street Mall:
Offers a Primark, Menarys, Dunnes Stores, Dorothy Perkins and BHS. Also in the city centre is Argento, French Connection and Next.
The Hilden Brewery, the Lisburn historic quarter, Ballance House, Colin Glen Forest Park, Lagan Valley LeisurePlex and the Coca-Cola Visitors’ Experience.
The Island Arts Centre offers a theatre, gig venue and art gallery all in one. There are also numerous art galleries and Down Royal Racecourse.
The Victorian Christmas Market will be held at Ballance House on December 1 from 11am–4pm.
Donald McFetridge: Real ‘enemy’ is not each other, it’s the internet
Well, it’s that time of year again. In five weeks Christmas will be all but over for yet another year. But not before a battle is fought on the high street for the hearts and minds of consumers.
Lisburn fired the first shot in this year’s Christmas store wars with its ‘Avoid the traffic jams and shop in Lisburn’ campaign. And, I suppose, one has to |admire their pluck. In the face of recent bad publicity surrounding traffic and congestion issues in Belfast pre-Christmas, it’s probably reasonable to expect that (hopefully, when consumers do eventually get into their cars intent on some serious Christmas shopping), such issues could possibly become much worse. So, why not suggest Lisburn as an alternative?
It’s been done before in different parts of the world. Town and city retailers throughout the world are all keen to get as much of their share (or others’) of the Christmas trade — a time when retailers traditionally make the lion’s share of profits. Historically, this has also happened in the car industry with warring manufacturers suggesting that consumers should purchase their vehicles instead of those of their competitors.
But sometimes this kind of tactic backfires. Consumers loyal to a particular brand of merchandise sometimes take exception to having the alternative thrust in their faces in a battle of comparative/combative auto-suggestion.
Both cities have much to offer and I’m sure both will have their fair share of shoppers irrespective of publicity campaigns, whether these be positive or negative in their outlook .
But irrespective of advertising or traffic problems, this year it’s going to be a very tough retail marketplace indeed. Advertising campaigns and potential traffic chaos are not going to be the key determinants of Christmas success or failure in retail this year.
The greatest threat to Christmas on the high street this year is the internet. Online sales are already booming and this trend is set to continue. International analysts are predicting that, this year, online will really knock the socks off the high street.
For myself, I’ll probably take a cursory look at what’s happening in both cities (and Sprucefield, which is crying out for a John Lewis outlet).
But, I have to be honest and state that, not for the first time, I shall be sourcing my Christmas epicurean and olfactory delights from the comfort of an armchair with the aid of my ubiquitous iPad and a short break to Geneva.
At the minute, what we’re seeing is really only sabre-rattling and shadow boxing. There are many more shots to be fired in this showdown.
Donald McFetridge is a retail analyst with the Ulster Business School at the University of Ulster