House of Fraser rescued: What shoppers said in Belfast’s Victoria Square
‘The economy may pick up, but House of Fraser seems to belong to a time gone by’
It may be a flagship, but how long will it stay afloat?
Belfast's landmark House of Fraser didn't open its doors yesterday until 11am, but by early lunchtime it appeared to be business as usual in the Victoria Square retail complex.
Shoppers thronged the multi-storey city centre department store, browsing high-end goods; some snapping up bargains in the summer sale, others ear-marking potential future purchases.
Footfall was steady, if unremarkable; many of the tills actually seemed a little on the quiet side for a Friday afternoon...and there were subtle indications that something was indeed amiss in this bastion of post-Troubles Belfast.
On various floors, staff huddled in pairs or small groups whispering within earshot about what the Sports Direct bail-out would mean for them - and when they'd hear something concrete. As one employee told a colleague: "We'll probably know more next week."
"We've been told our jobs are safe," another said in response to a customer's question about the buy-out.
"Otherwise, we know as much as you do."
Upon opening to unprecedented fanfare, back in March 2008, the centre increased Belfast's inner-city shopping space by a third, epitomising the massive urban regeneration inspired by political stability achieved the previous year.
At the time, the late Ian Paisley, then Northern Ireland's First Minister, referred to the stunning £400m development as a "new chapter in the history of Belfast".
But, in those 10 years and five months, this landmark anchor tenant, which had supermodel Yasmin Le Bon as the showpiece of its gala opening, has hit stormy seas.
And yesterday, in the largest House of Fraser property - which got a £5m facelift in 2016 - there were other repercussions too.
A sign which had been placed beside various tills throughout the store, read: "Due to circumstances beyond our control we are currently unable to process any gift cards at this time. Apologies for any inconvenience caused. For any queries please contact Customer Services 0845 602 1073."
Why bother? I called the number continuously throughout the day - and didn't get through once. (Although, a colleague successfully bought shoes online with a gift card yesterday.)
Another sign, placed within a section of beds and linen that was, rather bizarrely, cordoned off, read: "Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, Bedeck, Sanderson & Murmur are currently unable to trade."
The reason for this improbable sight in one corner of the top floor? A staff member told me: "They haven't signed a contract with the new owners so we can't sell anything today, sorry."
In an increasingly online world, there's an inevitability that the armchair shopper will eventually reign supreme, even before the turbulent local and world economies are taken into consideration.
On the streets yesterday, there was a decidedly mixed reaction to the news that Sports Direct had acquired all of the UK stores of House of Fraser shortly after the company had gone into administration.
This latest development was little surprise to Belfast student Matthew Tumelty (23), who had gone into the luxury store to collect a make-up purchase for his sister.
"I couldn't afford to shop there. It's so expensive and I'm not sure ordinary people have that much money these days," he said.
"My partner Sinead actually used to work in a House of Fraser outlet, but it closed down and she was made redundant five years ago.
"The economy may pick up but, to me, House of Fraser belongs to a time gone by, when people were more prosperous and online shopping wasn't so popular."
Dundonald firefighter Jonathan Beggs (37), who was out shopping with his two-year-old daughter Willow, said the department store "isn't somewhere I normally shop".
"I prefer smaller local shops rather than big brands and designer clothes, so if Belfast loses House of Fraser it won't make much difference to me," he said.
"In saying that, Sports Direct's Mike Ashley is a good businessman, so he might be able to save the store."
Kerrie-Louise Prentice (19), a classroom assistant from Portadown, said she loved Victoria Square but doesn't actually shop in its flagship retail unit.
"I love Victoria Square, so it's a bit of a worry that there are problems with its anchor tenant," she said.
But Larne couple Megan Millar (18), a student, and engineer Connaire Maydan (20), said Belfast's retail offering would be "devastated without House of Fraser".
"It would be terrible for the city if anything were to happen to it," said Megan. Connaire added: "I love House of Fraser. I shop there all the time and spend a fortune in it. I really hope we don't lose it."
Troubled waters indeed, and just like Megan and Connaire, many of the staff are fervently hoping this huge vessel isn't listing beyond repair.