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Relief: Garden centres and car dealers delighted to open their doors again

A Northern Ireland garden centre owner described the first day of trading as "hectic but fantastic" as some restrictions on non-essential retail were eased.

Outdoor retail, including new and used car sales, and garden centres and plant nurseries, resumed yesterday after a 106-day lockdown saw the shutters pulled down. Robin Mercer, owner of Hillmount Garden Centre, which has three garden stores in Belfast, Bangor and Newtownards, said customers queued up from early morning and throughout the day.

He said: "It's been fantastic. The queue has been halfway down the shop the whole day and everyone is in good form and very happy to get back."

Mr Mercer said most customers called for shrubs and trees with many leaving with barbecues and orders for garden furniture.

"You couldn't say there is one particular item that is most in demand but we are seeing many people putting in orders for garden furniture and barbecues because now we can socialise and entertain outdoors."

It was a bittersweet day for many in the retailing sector as they watched on as their peers in England were able to trade for the first time in three months.

Mr Mercer added: "Our really busy trading period kicks off from around St Patrick's Day with Easter being one of our busiest times of the year and we've lost that but we're just happy to be open."

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He said since the stores last opened they have faced new issues accessing stock after Brexit while delivery delays with items including barbecues have come about from the Suez Canal blockage at the end of March.

Meanwhile the motor trade sector, which was also allowed to resume an outdoor sales service yesterday, is reaping the rewards of pent-up demand, with one showroom selling a supercar on its first day of trading.

TrustFord's Lisburn dealership sold the Ford GT supercar to a private collector.

Stuart Foulds, chairman and chief executive at TrustFord, said: "TrustFord is hugely proud to be responsible for the handover of the Ford GT. We are committed to driving the standard in customer care - whether that be for the collection of a rare performance vehicle or a buyer of a classic family car."

Charles Hurst Group operations director Jeff McCartney said: "It's been a really positive day for customers and colleagues. There's a great buzz back around all our dealerships, the mood is cheerful and people are smiling. It's great to see."

Most car retailers are operating an appointment-only service with click and collect.

Yuile Magee, group managing director at Agnew Group, said: "Following the first lockdown in 2020, there was a notable pent-up demand which translated into a large volume of enquiries and sales. We are prepared for a similar scenario in the coming weeks. Our dealerships exist to service the needs of our customers, which is why we are offering customers the opportunity to select the type of sales journey they prefer. From a digital and remote purchase, to a physical visit to a showroom."

Agnew is also offering 15-minute unaccompanied test drives.

Paul Ward, sales director at Shelbourne Motors, said its online sales have been "significantly strong and much higher than we anticipated" even prior to the opening.

He added: "We are very excited to finally open the doors to our multi-franchise showrooms in Portadown and Newry, and welcome back customers who prefer to purchase a car in-person."

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