Viewpoint: Ikea is a brand new Ulster lesson
Never before in Northern Ireland's history has the opening of a single store been awaited with such anticipation. For some, Ikea may be just another furniture shop, but for others it means that, at last, the very latest in design for home and office will be here on our doorstep.
Everything about the Holywood Exchange store is on a massive scale, in keeping with the interest it has generated. It occupies 29,000 square metres on two floors, with 9,500 product lines, a 570-capacity restaurant overlooking Belfast Lough and - most important - 2,500 car parking spaces, where many a flat pack will be loaded. Small wonder that the PSNI sent a team to an Ikea opening in Spain, to prepare for the potential traffic nightmare.
As the first Ikea store in Ireland - Dublin comes next - it will draw customers from across the island, adding to the business flowing to the east of the province. Soon the long-awaited Victoria Centre will open its doors in central Belfast, with more leading High Street names, making clear that the Troubles are well and truly over. Only the arrival of John Lewis, at Sprucefield, is needed to complete the picture, after the Outlet openings in Banbridge and Antrim.
In a few short years, a province which had to cope with the effects of the Troubles and the never-on-Sundays attitude of its legislators has become a retail paradise. Weekends are the busiest times of the week, for clubs, pubs, shops, cinemas and, increasingly, sport.
The only fly in the ointment is that, just as the shops have been preparing for a bumper Christmas, customers are feeling the credit squeeze. With food and fuel prices rising, and house sales stagnant, there may be less money to invest in the costliest items. Yet Ulster shoppers have proved to be a resilient breed, in good times and bad, and Ikea has a curiosity value far above the normal.
While there is much to be gained, directly and indirectly, from a store that employs nearly 600 workers, retail development should not be regarded as the main solution to Northern Ireland's ills. Enough is enough, now that practically every sizeable town has its competing supermarkets, and there are good reasons why a halt has been called, in Britain, to out-of-town shopping complexes.
Ikea's arrival should mean not only a boost for the economy, but it must open eyes to the pleasure and efficiency of good design, in all manner of low cost everyday objects. If Northern Ireland is to merit its place as a must-see destination for tourists, and wants to attract overseas investment, it must keep an eye to the future as well as the past. Stores that are brand leaders can show the way.