M&S opening store in Craigavon as it rings up 50 years in Northern Ireland
Marks & Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe has said that it is investing in Northern Ireland - including opening a new store in Craigavon - despite making cuts elsewhere.
The company, which is marking half a century in the province, said it was creating around 200 jobs here. It already has 3,000 staff in Northern Ireland.
As well as opening a food hall at Craigavon's Marlborough Retail Park next year, it's also relocating its Newry store and launching another Simply Food store at a filling station at Belfast International.
A new store was also announced for Carrickfergus earlier this year.
The chain has 20 stores in the province, with the food hall at its Sprucefield store claiming the highest food sales of any M&S in the UK.
Mr Rowe, who has been in the top job for over a year, said: "We're adding about 200 jobs in Northern Ireland, which is a continuation of our success story here.
"Some of our largest market shares are here in Northern Ireland - including our second-largest food market share.
M&S in Northern Ireland also has a market share of around 8%, double that in the UK as a whole and second only to Glasgow at 9%.
And over the 50 years since it opened in Belfast, Mr Rowe said "the biggest change is the scale of our food business".
When it opened its first store in Donegall Place in Belfast in 1967, M&S was predominantly a clothing retailer and its food offering was relatively small.
But sales of its clothing ranges have since been eclipsed by the success of its food. Mr Rowe has pledged to tackle the problem. He told the Belfast Telegraph: "What we are seeing is that retail is changing faster than ever before as there is a greater penetration of online sales and we know we have got to make the (store) estate fit for the future.
"In three to five years we are going to cut down the clothing and home square footage that we have got, but increase the number of food stores."
It has also cut some labels from its offering, including the Indigo label for casual womenswear and the Collezione label for men.
He wouldn't say if any Northern Ireland stores would find themselves losing clothing floor space to food. "We are looking at it on a store by store basis."
But he said that when new Simply Food stores are included "we'll have more stores in three years' time than we have today".
And he said the company was not being drawn into a dispute over Brexit and immigration cuts between prominent businesses and 10 Downing Street. A number of major businesses have said they refused to endorse a letter from the Prime Minister in support of the UK Government's Brexit strategy. Mr Rowe said: "The key thing we want to see (on Brexit) is clarity because there is not necessarily clarity around these things. We have not endorsed any letters and we remain apolitical. We have got to be focused on doing the right thing for our customers."
He said the business did not have a large number of workers from overseas but said free movement of goods was crucial to its operating model. "The one thing that M&S is very keen on is the free movement of goods.
"When you have a fresh food business, anything that adds additional time is going to be difficult."
The company held an event for customers outside its main Donegall Place store yesterday morning, where eager shoppers included one woman who had queued for the store's opening 50 years earlier.
On that opening day "120,000 people came through the door, and that's a record for any M&S", Mr Rowe said.
He said the company had been an innovator and had been the first grocer in the UK to sell fresh chickens.
Many key suppliers it still uses in Northern Ireland have been with it from the start, including Ormeau Bakery and O'Kane Poultry, now part of Moy Park. In the intervening years, the list of suppliers has grown to include Magherafelt-based bakery Genesis Crafty and Co Down meat firm Finnebrogue, which is the main supplier of M&S top-tier sausages.
Genesis Crafty has provided eight new lines and three product upgrades. And eggs from Skea Eggs in Co Tyrone account for 60% of eggs sold in its UK stores.
"We will soon have 23 stores, after announcing Craigavon and the relocation of Newry, and the new petrol filling station at the airport. It really is one of the best-performing regions."
Its Simply Food at the filling station at Belfast International will be owned by M&S rather than operated as a franchise.
He said the M&S food hall in the Abbeycentre had the greatest density of sales in the UK and said it was investigating the possibility of extending it. Its Newry store is relocating from the city's Buttercrane Shopping Centre to rival centre The Quays.
But across its international business, it has launched cuts, including the proposed sale of its Hong Kong and Macau business.