Waitrose planning to set up shop in Northern Ireland
Supermarket chain Waitrose is gearing up to take on the big players in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Well-placed sources in the industry have confirmed that plans are very well advanced, with the first store expected to open within two years.
It is understood the gourmet grocer – which told this newspaper that it would "very much like" to set up here – is considering sites in Holywood (which is first on the list), Belfast, Ballymena, Coleraine and Lisburn.
Speculation has been rife for some time that the luxury supermarket had its eyes on the region, but confirmation of its foray into the local market is now expected in the coming months.
The development is great news for local consumers and will add to the already fierce competition among the major chains who frequently indulge in price wars.
Retail expert Donald McFetridge, who is based at the University of Ulster, said Waitrose was one of only two supermarkets currently growing market share.
"The market here is ripe for a new entrant like Waitrose who would bring a top-class retail supermarket food offering to Northern Ireland's more discerning customers," he said.
"I believe that consumers here would benefit from more competition and choice, particularly from a retailer like Waitrose, which offers quality products and epicurean delights which we still cannot find in even the Tesco Finest or Sainsbury's Taste The Difference product categories.
"Northern Ireland is still at least 15 years behind some other geographic regions in the UK; it's time to catch up."
Mr McFetridge said the operator most likely to be affected by the arrival of a store group like Waitrose would be Marks and Spencer, which offers a premium food retail product range.
"At the minute the retail supermarket business is even more competitive than ever and the only two players who appear to be growing market share are Aldi at the discount end of the market and Waitrose at the top end," he said.
"Sainsbury's, Tesco and Asda are being squeezed as the market becomes more and more polarised; those operating in the mid-market are suffering at the expense of Aldi and Waitrose."
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said he would like to see Waitrose locate in town centres.
"Given that one in four shops is vacant in town centres, we'd be very keen to see Waitrose play a role in helping to regenerate town centres by relocating to those empty stores there," he said.
Waitrose director of development Nigel Keen denied the company had any immediate plans to open here but admitted it "remains a longer term aspiration".
Highbrow player who'll give us more choice
"A fancy supermarket chain where the godless middle-class go to worship."
That's how British food critic Jay Rayner described Waitrose, which now has Northern Ireland in its sights.
Consumers here may never have set foot in its stores.
In fact, many may only be aware of its existence from television adverts.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put an average food shop for UK families at £77.
It's an amount that will definitely go much further in the so-called 'big three' – Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury's – or even Marks and Spencer, the retailer whose customer base is most likely to be affected.
Waitrose's recessionary 'essential' range seems to have kept prices competitive, while certain basic items (bread, milk etc) seem to have a fixed price wherever you shop.
In Northern Ireland, where average wages are lower than Britain, most people probably couldn't afford to buy all their groceries there.
But shopping habits have changed and price-conscious consumers are spreading food purchases across stores.
And, if the recession has taught us anything, it's that paying extra for something special is the perfect tonic. Welcome Waitrose.