Vetoing John Lewis utter lunacy, says retail expert
A major food and retail analyst has accused Northern Ireland's "upstart" decision makers of "utter lunacy" in rejecting plans by department store John Lewis to set up shop here.
Clive Black, head of research at Shore Capital, said he wouldn't be surprised if the retailer decided to "stick two fingers up to Northern Ireland's planners and open in Dublin".
Mr Black was in Craigavon to address the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA's) annual conference, Appetite for Growth.
Mr Black is ranked as one of the UK's top consumer analysts, and gained a PhD on Northern Ireland's food industry from Queen's University.
He said that John Lewis - which abandoned its plans to open a store in Sprucefield outside Lisburn in 2013 after a planning row that rumbled on for nearly 10 years - should have been welcomed with open arms by policymakers.
In January 2013 John Lewis withdrew its planning application when the then Environment Minister Alex Attwood ruled retail at Sprucefield should be limited to bulky goods.
The future of the overarching planning policy for Greater Belfast is currently in limbo as a clash between Stormont ministers continues in the High Court.
John Lewis, which has no stores in Ireland, has always said Sprucefield's out-of-town retail park next to the M1 motorway is the only location it is interested in.
"Putting up barriers to John Lewis is utter lunacy to my mind - it's the best retailer in Britain," Mr Black told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.
"What upstarts deprive shoppers of such experiences is mind-boggling - it would make a good movie.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see John Lewis stick two fingers up to Northern Ireland's planners and open in Dublin in time."
And he said that the supermarket scene in Northern Ireland - dominated by Sainsbury's, Tesco and Asda, but witnessing a steady increase in sales by German discounter Lidl - is very similar to Britain.
But the symbol sector - operations such as Spar and Eurospar franchise owners Henderson Group - was "more effective" in the province.
"We see the discounters continuing to advance for now, albeit progress can be expected to tail off as the big boys get their acts together in time."
Mr Black said Northern Ireland had a "strong" food sector but that advanced processing was further progressed in Britain, "which possibly provides an opportunity for development in the region". And he said the sea barrier with Britain was a "hassle" but also "a great source of provenance and identity".
And of recent big deals in the sector, he said: "Moy Park has been acquired by JBS, one of the world's largest and most effective protein businesses.
"We will need to wait now and see how JBS takes it forward, but hopefully it will be exciting for Moy Park and the region."
Mr Black added: "The industry is strong and doesn't need to be lectured or preached to.
"That said, serious thinking must be ongoing into competitiveness, particularly with sterling's strength against the euro, entrepreneurship, innovation and the art of selling."
He also urged food and drink firms to use resources such as NIFDA, Invest NI and Queen's University.
"Equally, these agencies must reach out and go and speak or knock doors," he added.