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Exhibit's demise a real loss to Northern Ireland high street

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 19/10/2016

Some of Exhibit's clothing range
Some of Exhibit's clothing range

On the day when it was revealed that fewer people are shopping on the High Street in Northern Ireland, another locally owned retail chain went into administration with the loss of around 100 jobs.

Exhibit, founded in 1983 by two brothers of celebrity chef Paul Rankin, had 24 outlets at its height and even after slimming down had 14 operating until yesterday. It was a remarkable success story, selling quality fashions - many designed by the wife and ex-wife of the two founders - at affordable prices.

Indeed, such was its presence in Northern Ireland, most shoppers would have been forgiven for thinking that it was a national chain which had expanded to the province in a big way.

The owners blame changing consumer spending habits and a downturn in general trading conditions for the decision to shut up shop. They might also have added in internet retailing, which continues to eat into the turnover of traditional bricks and mortar outlets.

The closure of Exhibit removes yet another independent retailer from the offering to consumers in Northern Ireland, which is increasingly dominated by national and multi-national chains. That is bound to be bad news for those seeking variety, particularly in the field of fashion.

It is also a sign that the pressures on the High Street are continuing. Footfall is also falling in the out of town retail parks, but less slowly - bucking the trend in other parts of the UK. While some of the empty shops that blighted so many town centres in recent times have been filled, these are still challenging times for retailers.

There have been attempts to revitalise the sector through initiatives like rates relief or lower rents, but consumer confidence is the key and that has been shaken in recent months with uncertainty over what Brexit holds for the future, although the falling pound has made border towns more attractive to shoppers from the Republic. However, that is a bonus which has not spread throughout the province and is subject to the volatility of currency exchange, which could see it disappear overnight.

In the meantime, we must spare a thought for the staff of Exhibit, who face a very uncertain future while the administrators sort out the future of the outlets and what finances remain. They are the real losers in this sad end to what was an enviable fashion label and a tribute to the entrepreneurial skills of its founding family.

Belfast Telegraph

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