Belfast Telegraph

Right on queue, Belfast Primark welcomed back after rising from ashes

Shoppers queue up for the new Primark store in Belfast
Shoppers queue up for the new Primark store in Belfast
Customers are welcomed into the store
Customers are welcomed into the store
A Primark employee hands out bags to an estimated 1,100 people who queued to get into the store
The new Primark store on Castle Street, Belfast.
Shoppers leaving with their bargains
Shoppers leave with bargains

By Gillian Halliday

They are self-confessed Primark super-fans.

Co Antrim couple Karen McCausland (35) and Robert Russell (36) more than earned the title after they travelled to Manchester to get their fix as they mourned the store's temporary absence in Belfast.

And of course they were among the shoppers who came in their hundreds from all over on a retail pilgrimage for the store's hotly-anticipated return in Belfast city centre at the weekend.

The grand unveiling of the new Primark at Commonwealth House on Saturday saw at least 1,100 people queue to be the first through its doors.

More than three months after the firm's flagship store in historic Bank Buildings was left a shell after a catastrophic fire, it was clear from the huge turnout that this was a significant event.

Primark mega-fans Karen and Robert (inset below) made sure they weren't missing the opening and had travelled from Ballyrobert in a taxi booked for 7.30am.

It wasn't a problem, though, they explained, given that they've been travelling over the Irish Sea since the blaze just to get their Primark "fix".

"We love Primark. Even for Christmas we get vouchers for the store," said Karen.

"We went over to England on the plane just to go to the store in Manchester. It has five floors.

"We even told staff there that we were over from Belfast and they said they were aware of the fire."

Both said they missed the flagship local store - the loss of which has been devastating for Belfast - and were delighted it was now back.

"You can't beat it for value for money and the friendliness of staff," said Robert.

Karen agreed, adding that Primark has been part of her life since childhood.

"The prices suit people's pockets who maybe are on tight budgets," she said.

Further along the queue, contained within rows and rows of orange barriers, was 79-year-old Newtownabbey man Will Cochrane.

He was more than happy to navigate the city centre, which has recently seen the erection of a walkway around the damaged Bank Buildings, reconnecting Royal Avenue to Donegall Place.

This has enabled the safety cordon around the premises to be scaled back, enabling McDonald's, Argento jewellers and Skechers to reopen last week.

"I was up at six o'clock to get two buses," he said.

"It's great to see the crowds back again.

"It just shows what a draw Primark has, that it brings everybody in."

There were big cheers and loud applause when the doors were flung open at 9am to let in the first throng of shoppers, who fought off the chilly weather with the free tea and coffee provided inside.

What awaited them were four floors offering the latest fashions for women, men and children as well as accessories and homeware set out over nearly 27,000 sq ft of retail space.

At the time of August's inferno, Primark was extending into Commonwealth House as part of a major expansion of Bank Buildings.

Although smaller than the original store, the new extension boasts 23 cash desks and 25 fitting rooms, all set against interiors designed to celebrate Belfast: an image of the famous Harland & Wolff cranes is the first familiar sight to greet customers.

Among those to walk past the image was west Belfast woman Maggie Murphy (58), who was up at 6.30am to ensure she was at the head of the queue.

"It's just been missed that much," she said.

"You have to support the workers.

"It was absolutely horrible that it was away for so long."

Not far behind her was Paula Totten (37), who said she had switched to the retailer's Abbeycentre branch in the meantime, but was happy the city centre store was now back in operation.

"I just think it's amazing that one shop can create such excitement," she said of the spectacle.

The north Belfast woman, who was accompanied by her mum, Shirley, was there to kick-start her festive shopping.

"It's great getting ready for Christmas," she added.

It came as no surprise that stocking up for Christmas was the top priority for many of the shoppers - with festive pyjamas and jumpers frequently mentioned as "must-buys".

But for south Belfast woman Joan Hanna, the new store signalled the return of a much-missed routine.

"Primark has always been my store, my first stop every morning coming into town," said the 71-year-old.

Belfast Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey, who attended the opening, hailed it as a "great day" for the city, particularly for business owners in Castle Street.

Traders there had witnessed an estimated 60% drop in footfall after the fire, causing real concern for their future.

"It shows the city's resilience, we are bouncing back as a city," she said, adding: "There is more work to be done."

With Primark open again, smaller shops along adjacent Castle Street appeared to be benefiting from the surge of shoppers into the area, although Zara and Tesco Metro will remain closed for the foreseeable future.

Speaking at Saturday's opening, Ben Mansfield, director of Primark Stores Ltd, said the event marked a "significant milestone for our people, our neighbours and the wider community of Belfast".

"We are confident that our store and the newly-built walkway will help restore footfall in the Castle Street and surrounding area at this critical time, just before Christmas," he commented.

Primark will be hoping for a similar reaction when it opens its second city centre store in the retail space to be vacated by New Look in nearby Donegall Place.

Belfast Telegraph