More than 300 retail jobs could be on the way for Belfast city centre if a raft of international names finalise plans to open in the city, it has been claimed.
New retail and food businesses from no-frills burger joint Five Guys to high-profile fashion houses like H&M sister brand Cos are understood to be preparing to set up shop in Northern Ireland. Commercial property agents Savills said long-anticipated reductions in business rates have encouraged many potential international investors to commit to Belfast.
And hundreds of jobs could be offered in the city centre within the next 12 to 18 months due to "soaring" interest from large international and national retailers.
Retail director Paul Wilson was commenting on Savills' new report which showed retail investment accounted for an overwhelming majority, 88% (£440.27m), of the £500m worth of commercial property deals completed by the end of last year.
"Renewed consumer confidence and jobs growth is now beginning to be reflected in the retail property market," he said.
New entrants had begun to acquire prime and secondary locations in Belfast, he said with Mango, Karen Millen, Jaeger, Lidl, Golf Nation, Joules, Swarovski and Michael Kors either securing new sites or upsizing within the city centre. DW Sports, Gap and Zara have also been on the move.
Footwear brand Skechers and US kids fashion retailer Aeropostale are also among those expected to be seeking prime space in Belfast within the next year.
US fast-food giants Five Guys and UK-based casual Italian restaurants Ask and Izzy have also set their sights on the Northern Ireland market over the coming weeks and months.
The Irish franchise for Five Guys, founded in Virginia in the US in 1986, has been won by two sons of businessman Dermot Desmond, who are tipped to open five restaurants in Dublin.
They are expected to branch out to Cork, Limerick and Galway before coming north of the border.
The chain has sold franchise opportunities since 2003 and currently has more than 1,200 outlets in the US and Canada, opening in London's Covent Garden in 2013.
Meanwhile fashion label Cos - part of the same stable of Swedish fashion brands as H&M - is on the lookout for a prime location in Belfast, reported Savills. But the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has warned that political and economic uncertainty could have an adverse impact on long-term investment decisions.
And it called on the politicians to set aside their differences to prioritise the needs of the economy amid a continued challenging retail environment.
Aodhan Connolly of the body said politicians' squabbling could scare off international companies.
"The current political and economic uncertainty here could have an effect on not only consumer confidence, but on long term investment decisions," he said.
He said political disharmony "isn't good for business" and warned "anything that makes retailers' second guess whether they should be investing in Northern Ireland is not welcome".
"It is crucial that our politicians put aside their differences and work collegiately to prioritise the needs of the economy," he said.
"The political parties should get back round the negotiating table, thrash out their differences and then channel their collective energies into creating the certainty and confidence that will aid retailers and others to invest, expand and create jobs."