Fraser vs Lewis: battle of the superstores
Retail giant House of Fraser has squared up to rival John Lewis in opposition to its bid to open a major store at Sprucefield, outside Lisburn.
The battle for the affections of Northern Ireland’s shoppers entered a new phase when John King, the chief executive of HoF —which opened a £25m store in Belfast in 2008 — arrived in the city to speak to town centre managers from across Northern Ireland and to Social Development Minister Alex Attwood.
House of Fraser will be among the parties represented in the ‘no John Lewis in Sprucefield’ camp next month, when a public inquiry into the £150m, 500,000 sq ft development continues in October after an adjournment.
The planning application by Westfield, which also includes 19 other shop units, was referred to a public inquiry last year by then Environment Minister Sammy Wilson after a five year legal wrangle.
Mr King said his store was “passionate” about urban regeneration, which he said was a work in progress in Belfast. And he said that was the nub of HoF’s opposition to John Lewis at Sprucefield, not fears that the presence of the retailer would dents its profits.
He added that the two traded in close proximity in many British cities. “We complement each other because they have a different profile of customer and product line to us,” he said.
Mr King said the store had made a “significant investment” in Belfast since coming to anchor Victoria Square in 2008. August had been “the best month of the year” for HoF in Belfast, with the store coming sixth in its top six best performing UK locations.
“Our view is that there is still retail space available and still plenty of space available to put another department store in Belfast city centre. There are 20 vacant units in Victoria Square,” he said.
“Town centres are the hub of the community. We are primarily a town centre department store and if the high street starts to die it doesn’t help the community.”
A spokesman for John Lewis said the public inquiry was the “right forum for proper debate” on the Sprucefield question and that it should be allowed to conclude “without further delay”.
“This will allow for constructive arguments — both in favour and against — to be aired in front of the planning commissioners so that an informed and objective decision can be reached.
“John Lewis remains convinced that the Sprucefield scheme represents great news for the whole of Northern Ireland, bringing huge inward investment and over 1,000 new jobs,” he added.
He said its research showed Sprucefield to be the only location capable of supporting the full range of John Lewis goods, adding: “For the past six years, our position has remained clear and with this in mind, we believe the public inquiry must continue and we await the outcome of a definitive answer to this £150m development opportunity.”
Graham Chase, chairman of the Association of Town Centre Management said urban regeneration was at the heart of its opposition to John Lewis at Sprucefield.
“It’s about the bigger picture. John Lewis in Belfast is far more beneficial to Northern Ireland than John Lewis in Sprucefield.”
A DSD spokeswoman said Mr Attwood’s meeting with Mr King had been “useful”. She added: “The Department for Social Development welcomes all investment to Northern Ireland and values the contribution which the House of Fraser has made to the regeneration of Belfast City Centre.
“The planning application for Sprucefield is the subject of a public inquiry and the department has no further comment.”
Belfast City Council, which is also opposing John Lewis, said it had been “supporting Belfast’s regeneration” since the 1990s.