Retailers need a level playing field
The closure of S&R Electrics in east Belfast which was better known for trading under the slogan, 'Sam's yer man for a bargain', is another sad manifestation of the continuing hard times on the high street, especially for independent retailers.
In recent times an estimated one in five shops have been lying vacant in the city as well as in a number of towns across the region. It is the most evident sign of the economic austerity which continues to blight life here.
Although the unemployment rate has fallen consistently for more than two years, there is a lack of confidence among consumers. And the prospects of a retail-led economic recovery are slim given that some 20,000 public sector jobs are earmarked for the axe through budget restrictions at Stormont.
First and foremost the closure of S&R Electrics is a disaster for the 20 staff who have lost their jobs. This was a locally-owned company which had traded in the area for more than 30 years and was well known throughout the region with many households making it their first port of call when looking for electrical goods.
However, this is a very competitive sector of the retail industry. In 2010 Laser Electrical, a locally-owned chain of 10 stores, went under and even national high street chains have struggled in the recent economic climate.
Yet local politicians cannot simply shrug their shoulders at this latest closure, dismissing it as another casualty in the retail battlefield. Northern Ireland needs competition on its high streets and it needs locally owned independent stores who have a real stake in the community.
Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged in retail as in other sectors on industry as we seek to rebalance the economy by building up the private sector. We cannot simply rely on inward investors to create the new firms and jobs that we need. It has been said many times that retailers want and deserve a level playing field. Ministers need to look at issues like planning, car parking, out-of-town developments and rating levels to ensure that independent retailers can compete against national chains or huge shopping malls.
It would be a sad day if our high streets were populated only by the retail outlets of the huge conglomerates. Perhaps we would save a few pounds, but we would lose choice and the feeling of being a valued customer which only comes from the local shopkeeper.