Belfast Telegraph

How Belfast's jingling tills drowned out the sound of loyalist protest

By Lindy McDowell

Estimates of attendance differ. But where Saturday's protest in Belfast city centre was concerned it would be safe to say that in recent times we've seen bigger, angrier crowds outside ASDA.

The flags were outnumbered by bags, the placard slogans by "Magic and Sparkle" and as the protest dandered at stop-start pace down Royal Avenue, on the pavements shoppers zig-zagged around onlookers occasionally taking out the odd kneecap with sacks of cut-price electrical gadgetry and this year's toytown best-sellers.

Shop checkouts (including those in the immediate vicinity) were firing on all cylinders.

As Mr Twain might have put it, reports of the demise of Belfast city centre have been greatly exaggerated. Retail appears to be back on a bit of a roll.

Of course it may be just a temporary thing. Friday, for many people, was payday. Only one more of those to go before Christmas – and that one uncomfortably close to Santa's lift-off for those who don't do last-minute. So Saturday was always going to be a busy trading day whether online or on High Street.

But overall signs of Belfast's retail recovery seem more positive. On Saturday in a shopping street just off the main parade route, I noticed a cheery security guard on duty outside a newly opened gadget/gift shop. He was overseeing the queue of shoppers unable to get into the place because it was already packed.

It's been a while since we've seen something like that in Belfast. (Apart, granted, from that aforementioned ASDA sale.)

Needless to say, our shopping stamina here pales by comparison with American bargain hunting enthusiasm.

Scenes from their Black Friday (ours is just a sort of wimpy grey version) included really serious violence on the checkout interface. And this week, it's also been the turn of the online retail community to make hay globally. The amount spent on so-called Cyber Monday would nearly re-float the Greek economy. Hundreds of millions.

If you're looking for proof that there's more than a whiff of insanity about the whole Christmas shopping frenzy, then there's your receipt.

Yet it's hard to begrudge the shops – particularly local shops who've had it so hard for so long – a bit of a boost. If anybody needs retail therapy, it's local retailers.

They've weathered the security alerts and the protests. Although they've still to weather the weather. Forecasts for this weekend are not exactly balmy.

But while a return to the aisles may be good news for commerce, the wider problem for society, as we all know, is that at this time of the year people are tempted to splash out money they can ill afford (or just can't afford at all) on stuff they don't actually need.

Where do you draw the line? That's always going to be a matter for debate. One man's must-have is another man's extravagance.

And that doesn't just apply to the shopping public. It also holds for those attempting to kick start local economic recovery.

This Christmas, given experience of Belfast's bleak festive trading period in December 2012, the City Council has commendably earmarked over a quarter of a million quid to help boost trade.

A large whack of this will go on promoting the place through advertising – pre and post Christmas. The rest is being spent, we're told, on "street entertainment".

Hmmmm. Street entertainment.

On Saturday I spotted one bloke in white grease paint juggling a ball as shoppers hurried past seemingly oblivious to the fun to be had there.

I don't know....maybe that would attract you into town.

Maybe it is just me.

'REPORTS OF THE DEMISE OF BELFAST CITY CENTRE SHOPPING HAVE BEEN GREATLY EXAGGERATED'

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