Belfast Telegraph

Meet our online businesses riding the crest of a wave

Surf Mountain is joining the exodus from Belfast's high street - but its online retail business goes from strength to strength, writes Clare Weir

It's not been an easy few months for the high street. Not only are retailers having to cope with increasingly cash-strapped consumers as a result of the protracted downturn in the economy but they're also having to fight growing pressure from their online peers.

Latest research compiled for business advisory firm PwC found that 14 shops in the UK closed every single day in 2011, the year in which retailers closed more shops than they opened.

The growing popularity of online shopping has been partly to blame and Northern Ireland hasn't been immune.

But for one business which has been trading in Belfast city centre for decades, closing down a store does not mean the end of the world - just the beginning of a new one.

Surf Mountain, which also has premises in Bangor and Lisburn, is pulling down the shutters on its Brunswick Street outlet due to what owner Nick Stevenson called "outrageous" rates and the impact of large shopping centres and out-of-town retail parks.

"I've been trading for 28 years and I have never seen anything like these conditions," he said.

"It is incredible, nobody knows what is happening.

"When I started out, there were very few specialist retailers. We were a destination store in Belfast. Now with places like Victoria Square and the out-of-town outlets, all that has changed.

"If you increase retail space in a city centre by 50% as Victoria Square did, to say that it will not have an impact on other traders is not true. We have seen a big decrease in footfall and being realistic, shops have closed their doors.

"We had the option to move closer into the city centre or to close the shop and plough our resources into our online business.

"To be frank, rates in Belfast city centre are outrageous. Local government has lost sight of what it is there for. Infrastructure needs to be driven by the needs of the people and local authorities to be making things easier for traders in this financial climate.

"I would like to see rates drop by 40 or 50% - in Belfast city centre they are just too high. Rent is not the issue - it is rates."

While two jobs are being lost due to the closure, Mr Stevenson said that moving out of Belfast is in no way a retreat for Surf Mountain, which still employs 15 people.

The firm's online shop, established three years ago, is booming, with customers from the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, Greenland and even Kazhakstan.

"The internet has meant we can reach customers all over the world and has opened up new markets that were never available before," said Mr Stevenson.

But he added that it is not a simple case of slashing overheads and raking in the money.

"The idea that moving online cuts your overheads and saves you lots of money is a fallacy," he said.

"Google becomes your new landlord, it is not a simple reduction in overheads. You still have overheads, just a different type and moving to online business just means a different percentage coming out of your revenue.

"It is not easy. Trading online is very competitive and marketing costs can be high. Luckily we have a very good team running the website and we are very careful with our marketing spend.

"We do put a big emphasis on customer service and prompt delivery too. Nobody knows more about our ranges of outdoor clothing and products than our staff - we are all walkers, skiers, surfers, climbers; we are all very involved in what we do."

Mr Stevenson added that he feels strong action needs to be taken to revive the retail environment in town and city centres.

"In Northern Ireland we were able to look at what was happening in the rest of the UK in terms of big out-of-town retail complexes and chose to ignore that," he said.

"The pie here is only a certain size. The people in IT and manufacturing are the people who create the wealth and retail and shops like ours is where they go to spend that wealth.

"Retail does not create wealth. Strong retail is the sign of a strong economy but building shops will not create a strong economy."

Mr Stevenson said that he is not ruling out a return to the streets of Belfast.

"We still have shops in Bangor and Lisburn that are doing well and I think a bricks and mortar presence is incredibly important," he said.

"I would not rule out a return to Belfast city centre and I would love to still be trading there."

One Londonderry business is also fighting back via the internet after closing its shop doors after nearly 40 years of trading in the city.

Despite braving the worst violence of the Troubles, T&E Howie Lighting Design on Strand Road was forced to shut up shop after what manager Paul Howie said was "the worst trading conditions" the business has known since it first opened in 1973.

Mr Howie blamed internet trading and a lack of government support for the closure of the small family retailers who were also trying to compete with a global market, but Mr Howie still operates a lighting design business online.

He says business is going from strength to strength.

"I don't know where all our customers are coming from but we are very busy and that is without being very proactive," he said.

"Whether it is referrals, past clients, our website, all the publicity about our closing down, I am not sure but the new business is doing better than I ever would have expected, we have certainly done the right thing.

"While we were sad to leave Strand Road after such a long time, going online has had a lot of benefits.

"There are no more 12 hour days, I can go home whenever I like.

"The rates were a killer for us and the parking was a killer for customers.

"When people can go to a big out-of-town complex and park for free all day, why would they come and pay to park near us?

"The out-of-town issue, the parking issue, the rates issue and the internet issue all contributed to the closure but I can see why online sales seem so attractive and why no one would open a small independent business in a town centre these days - there was very little support for an independent, family-run business like ours from the powers that be.

"While I say that the Troubles did not close us down, the bomb scares in Derry during our last year of operation meant we had to stay closed for six days - we can't go and ask for our rates back on the days we were closed."