Editor's Viewpoint: Challenging times for Belfast retailers
The donation of £500,000 by Primark to be distributed to businesses in Belfast city centre affected by the fire which destroyed the retailer's Bank Buildings premises is a tremendous gesture.
Not only does it show concern for fellow traders who, through no fault of their own, are unable to open until the future of the burned building is decided, but it also shows the commitment of the company to the city.
Primark's owners say they want to be back to trading as soon as possible - a sentiment echoed by every other trader in the city centre - and they have created a positive momentum through their gift. They have already demonstrated their commitment to the city by assuring staff that they will be paid until the end of the year, a move which is not always made by retailers when they experience difficulties.
The donation also feeds into the advertising campaign to assure customers that Belfast is open for business at this vital time of the year - the run-up to Christmas - when traders hope to make enough sales to see them through the following lean months.
The campaign using both celebrities and ordinary citizens is also a quick response to a very unusual situation and helps to allay any suspicions that the city has been worse affected by the fire than it really is.
But the authorities cannot rest on their laurels. These are challenging times for retailers, both large and small, and they need every customer they can entice through their doors. It is right that government agencies like Land and Property Services and HMRC should see what assistance they can give to both those companies who have been forced to stop trading because of their proximity to the fire ravaged building and those who have seen their footfall drop dramatically for the same reason.
However, customers of another well known High Street retailer, House of Fraser, are not feeling the same love for that company. As we report today, several have been left in limbo wondering if gift vouchers they hold will be honoured by the new owner of the chain, Mike Ashley of Sports Direct.
They say the retailer is refusing to answer queries about the vouchers and that obviously is leaving them both frustrated and angry. It seems a short-sighted policy by the new owners to leave customers hanging and it is hardly likely to endear them to return to the store in the future. Business is a two-way contract.