Weak pound means Northern Ireland border shops enjoying bumper sales
Northern Ireland's border-based shops are preparing for a bumper Christmas despite Brexit bringing uncertainty to the future of a retail sector currently worth £40m annually.
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Southern shoppers are continuing to profit from a pound whose value began to plunge in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, meaning that goods and services remain much cheaper here than in the Republic.
- Slump in sterling luring shoppers from Republic to Derry
- Eager bargain-hunters from Republic keep tills ringing in Newry's shops
Footfall is up, bargains abound and sales of alcohol, sweets, health and childcare products, books, white goods and other big ticket items are currently going through the roof, according to local traders.
Improved roads since the last cross-border boom a decade ago mean less traffic congestion and faster journeys between the Republic and Northern Ireland for euro-tourists coming here to fill their trolleys with gifts and stock their larders and drinks cabinets.
And the influx includes displaced Primark customers visiting its Newry store - now its biggest Northern Ireland branch following the catastrophic fire at the retail giant's Bank Buildings flagship premises in Belfast.
Leading economist John Simpson said his calculations put the benefit for the province of annual cross-border retail at around £40m - but he warned of the fragility of the trade sector in the face of Brexit.
"My guesstimate is that the total magnitude of cross-border trade is around £40 million, spread between Newry, Derry and Enniskillen," he said.
"If Brexit goes wrong there will be a hard border and that means trade across the border will become much more formalised. It would ultimately affect cross border trade negatively."
Cathal Austin, manager at The Quays shopping centre in Newry for 16 years, said cross-border trade represents between 25% and 30% of total retail in the frontier city, which means it's worth around £12m. Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer are two of the "big draws" to the centre, with overall footfall already up this year "between 30 and 35% on last year".
"On a flat week, 25% of Quays shoppers are from the Republic; in the last quarter of the year it will grow to 45% from now until Christmas," said Mr Austin.
The busiest period is the last two weeks of November and first fortnight in December, and at the weekend six out of ten customers are likely to hail from the Republic, with individuals spending up to £900 each.
Mr Austin also said that the cross-border shopper profile no longer reflects the 'Rip Off Republic' sentiments which drove much of the Newry boom in the late Noughties.
"Southerners felt they were being ripped off and that drove them across the border back then," he said. "The economy was in decline, the Celtic tiger had passed away and people were trying to save money. There was no more lighting cigars with 50 euro notes...
"Now the whole landscape has changed. The southern economy is buoyant, employment is increasing, salaries and wages are increasing so people are crossing for different reasons.
"They're not trying to save money on their groceries or everyday living like they were in 2008. It's more selective, aspirational shopping now."
Mr Austin said the volume of items bought by southern shoppers has decreased, but the spend hasn't diminished, and they're also going further afield, to Banbridge and Belfast. "The value is no better now than it was then but a lot of it was driven by consumer sentiment," he said.
"Back then consumer sentiment in the south was that the north was this Utopia where everything was half price and that drove people across here in great numbers."
He added: "Retailers are doing well. It's all about customer perception and confidence. Brexit is looming over us. It may not keep you up at night but it's always in the back of people's minds."
Peter Murray, manager at the nearby Buttercrane shopping centre for 30 years, said cross-border shopping in 2018 hasn't been "as spectacular" as it was a decade ago.
"There was a spike in shopper numbers after the Brexit referendum, and Christmas 2016 was very good for us," said Mr Murray. "This year has been steady in terms of southern business. Rip Off Ireland has gone.
"The busiest period is the last two weeks of November and the first two weeks of December."
He said over a fifth of Buttercrane's custom over the year came from southern shoppers. "We monitor car registrations... it's a very inexact science," he explained.
He added: "There's no reason that it won't be a bumper Christmas this year. The floodgates will open shortly. It's a pretty positive atmosphere. Numbers are up on this time last year. All the shops take euros. It's a dual currency economy across Newry."
Chief executive of Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade, Colm Shannon, said "cross-border trade becomes more important as Christmas approaches".
"There is an upturn in southern shopper numbers from Halloween onwards.
"Newry's two large shopping centres are vitally important but we've also got a very strong independent sector and the combination of both makes Newry very attractive. The chamber has been at the forefront in terms of lobbying against a hard border Brexit. Cross-border trade is a vital element of the Newry economy and that's why it's so important to avoid a hard border."
Dr Peter Bolan, Ulster University Director of International Travel and Tourism Management, said more people than ever before have been coming across the border in the last two years.
"People are coming up as a result of a number of factors and one of them is certainly the exchange rate," he said.
Dr Bolan added that it would be "a great shame" if one of the ramifications of Brexit was the undoing of the now well established cross-border relationship.