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'Independent shops in Northern Ireland will go out of business unless Stormont Executive intervenes'

Pandemic continues to take its toll on the economy, as retailers call for more government help and local media firms feel pinch

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Concerned: Glyn Roberts

Concerned: Glyn Roberts

The Bullitt Hotel in Belfast being boarded up

The Bullitt Hotel in Belfast being boarded up

Banbridge virtually deserted

Banbridge virtually deserted

Moira virtually deserted

Moira virtually deserted

Concerned: Glyn Roberts

Independent retailers here will go out of business as a result of the coronavirus shutdown without further help from the Executive, it's been claimed.

Trade group Retail NI is calling for 12-month rates holiday, in addition to the grant scheme which has already been announced, to help businesses cope with the cut-off in cashflow.

All but essential shops such as pharmacies and grocers have now closed down.

Some businesses have taken the step of boarding up their premises following the order to close. Yesterday properties in the Beannchor portfolio including the Bullitt Hotel in Belfast were being boarded up.

Standalone off-licences are also likely to be boarded up as they have been deemed non-essential - though alcohol can still be sold from supermarkets.

Retail NI chief Glyn Roberts said members were suffering as a result of the order to close down given by the Prime Minister on Monday.

And in the long-term it's feared that some independents in the high streets of towns around Northern Ireland may never reopen.

Last week Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced that NI firms would enjoy a three-months rates holiday. However, in the rest of the UK, firms will have a 12-month break.

Mr Roberts said: "Our focus is on getting the enhanced rate relief that's available in other parts of the UK.

"We are really concerned about the fact that the rest of the UK is receiving a 12-month rates holiday and we are receiving just three months of that."

And he said Retail NI would also be urging the Executive to remove standalone off-licences from the list of shops deemed non-essential.

He said that members who had closed their doors were scrambling to apply for grants from the Department for the Economy, as well as awaiting details of the staff retention scheme announced by the UK government, which will pay 80% of wages of staff who have been temporarily laid off.

"We are seeing lots of good announcements but the detail of those schemes is another matter."

He said convenience retailers were in the frontline of serving the community with supplies while also keeping staff and customers safe by practising social distancing. But he added that other retailers who had been forced to close needed help.

"We want to make sure we can soft-land them and hope that they can come back afterwards. But we will be in damage limitation mode when it comes to how we will reconstitute our economy post-coronavirus," he said.

"It's very challenging situation but we hope we can get as many businesses back afterwards as we can. There will be casualties that may not be saved but we want to keep them to a minimum.

"We expect that afterwards, there will be a very different model of doing business and the world will be a very different place."

He added: "We have a very, very strong independent retailers but at the minute, they are under huge strain."

It comes as the Centre for Retail Research warns that 20,600 retailers UK-wide are expected to have pulled their shutters down for the final time by the end of the year, a massive leap on the 4,547 that closed in 2019.

In Northern Ireland, retailers of goods such as furnishings were already counting the cost last month of interruptions to their supply chain as a result of the lockdown in China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated.

But the Centre for Retail Research said bigger retail chains may also reconsider their store estate in future.

Director Professor Joshua Bamfield said: "We expect large retail businesses to now be looking at exactly how many stores they expect to operate in 2021 and beyond in order to trade successfully moving forward.

"They will now make plans to achieve those objectives."

The closure of retailers means job losses are predicted to reach more than 235,000 - up from less than 93,000 last year. That is both in closing stores and in those cutting back on staff.

Prof Bamfield said Government efforts to help business will have taken some of the edge off some of the closures and job losses.

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