Business as usual - despite Sainsbury's

Belfast's small shops survived IRA bombs; now they're up against the big supermarket chains, says Nick Varley
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A pick-up van is parked outside Rowan Black's high-street grocery shop. Nothing remarkable about that - except that less than two years ago it would have led to the evacuation of the town centre. And 22 years ago, a similar piece of parking resulted in the facade of the shop being blown away by a car bomb.

Mr Black's family-owned small supermarket in Lisburn, near Belfast, was in the front line of the Troubles. The largest army garrison in the province is a short stroll away. On the office wall is a picture of the devastation caused by the bomb of 1974.

Now, despite the threat of renewed violence after last week's IRA bombing of London's Docklands, the town centre is closer to resembling any on the mainland than it has been for a generation. A parking ban that was introduced to stop bombings but was lifted after the ceasefire 18 months ago is still not in force. This week, army patrols returned, but Mr Black and the other small shopkeepers are hoping it is temporary.

"Everyone is hoping the bomb in London was a one-off. No one wants to see things back how they used to be," he says. "The peace process was good for small businesses: customers have been coming back into town centres and there has even been a lot of cross-border trade, which we never had before. Towns have been marketing themselves to attract shoppers and tourists. I hope that doesn't stop."

At the same time the peace process - and the investment that came with it - has brought about a new threat, potentially as lethal to Mr Black's business as any IRA campaign. Where the terrorists failed to close the business, mainland supermarket chains may succeed.

Sainsbury's is spearheading an invasion into the province with plans for up to 12 new stores. Tesco and Iceland are also moving in, but it is Sainsbury's initial plans for seven new superstores that are causing most concern. The plans, announced six weeks after the start of the ceasefire, remain unchanged, despite doubts over the peace process.

The company says that the pounds 100m investment will create 2,000 jobs and lead to lower prices for shoppers. Its critics argue that the superstores will merely take customers and jobs away from the existing smaller players, who say the market is already saturated. On price, they say Sainsbury's will be no cheaper than any other store - unless it plans to hold its prices artificially low to establish a customer base.

Among the suspicious small retailers, talk is of why Sainsbury's is entering the market now, and whether it has been offered inducements to invest. The company says it was contemplating a move into Northern Ireland before the peace process began and it denies point-blank that it is receiving grants or assistance.

But the main concern is that Sainsbury's and the other national chains may be given unfair advantages - specifically, approval for giant out- of-town stores. Mr Black, aged 37, runs a business that his father, Griffith, built from a single butcher's shop into the 12,000sq ft operation of today, employing 120 and with a pounds 9m turnover. He will soon have a Tesco of four times the size within a five-minute walk. But he is more worried about a possible out-of-town Sainsbury's site, nearly twice as big again and a 10-minute drive away.

"We welcome competition," he says. "The customer will have more choice, which is a good thing. We know we can compete on price, on quality of service and on the range and quality of our goods. We'll also have customer loyalty. But if another town centre is created by a retail park away from town, the customers will no longer be in town to shop. That could decimate the whole town centre."

The fear is that small retailers and town centres will go the way of those on the mainland, where half a dozen independent supermarkets account for less than 1 per cent of grocery sales; in Northern Ireland, about 40 take 11 per cent of the market.

The Department of the Environment last month issued a consultative document on out-of-town development. It cautioned against the effect that such retail parks could have, and was welcomed by the small traders. But in places where the superstores' plans are edge-of-town, existing stores are having to decide how they will compete.

Near the centre of Londonderry, Sainsbury's is hoping to build a 33,000sq ft store, which will be the subject of a public inquiry later this month. Among those opposing it will be Frank Long, who opened a small shop opposite the site of the proposed superstore in 1960. He was bombed more than 20 times as he built the business into a 12,000sq ft supermarket next door to his first shop, and added four other small stores to take his turnover to pounds 18m a year. His son Brian, now 30 and sales manager, recalls coming downstairs from his room above the shop to see his mother being robbed as a terrorist held a gun to her back.

The Longs insist that there is no room in the market for a new player: about 110,000sq ft of grocery space has already opened in Londonderry since 1992. But they are drawing up a battle plan to fight Sainsbury's if it gets the go-ahead. It is based on investment to provide a similar Nineties shopping environment to the superstores.

Many of the province's stores do look like relics from the Sixties - for obvious reasons, according to Brian Long. "In the Seventies and Eighties it was impractical to invest in, for example, brass fittings and nice decor, because the next week a bomb might ruin it all. Then it was just a question of survival; now, with the peace process, that has changed and we shall begin to invest again."

The only problem Brian Long can see is if Sainsbury's is prepared to carry losses to woo its customers: "They can stand that for six months or more; we can't for six weeks or even six days."

But no one will go down without a fight. Brian Long sums it up: "When we were bombed we used to put up a 'Business as usual' sign and operate from Portakabins. Now we're saying to Sainsbury's and the others: 'It's still business as usual'. We've coped with worse than them."