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Waitrose eyes move into Ulster retail market
The boss of upmarket supermarket Waitrose has not ruled out a move into the Northern Ireland market despite some of the toughest trading conditions seen in years.
Mark Price, chief executive of the firm, was in the region to address Business In The Community, of which he is chair, and the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association.
During his visit he also met with First Minister Peter Robinson and Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and invited the board of Waitrose to take a tour of the Titanic Quarter.
He also called in to the Sprucefield retail park, where Waitrose parent company John Lewis has been trying to set up an outlet for almost a decade, and visited Moy Park, which supplies all of the chicken products sold in Waitrose's 270 UK stores.
The company spends £100m on products from Northern Ireland every year, including venison, oats, whiskey, bread, crisps and cheese.
With sales up 10% on this time last year, Mr Price said that plans for future expansion are not being put on the back-burner despite the difficult economic climate.
"We're planning to double in size over the next decade and Northern Ireland is certainly one option we are looking at," he said.
"Three years ago people were writing us off, saying the recession would kill us but people should not confuse cheapness with value. When times are hard, consumers tend to be more discerning and we offer quality products at a good price and that is what is driving us forward."
Mr Price also had high praise for the agri-food sector here.
"The sector is up 8% in a year, the quality is very good, there are plenty of products coming from Northern Ireland into Waitrose."
He added that the spectre of the large retailer levy, which would tax large stores in order to fund rates relief for smaller businesses - attracting the ire of big supermarkets like Sainsbury's and Tesco - would not put Waitrose off potentially locating here.
Based in the south of England, Waitrose has 270 outlets across the UK employing 46,000 people.
As part of the John Lewis Partnership, it's owned by staff, who share the profits that would normally go to shareholders.
Waitrose enjoys celebrity endorsements from the likes of Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal and also has exclusive rights to manufacture, distribute and sell Prince Charles' Duchy Originals products in the UK.
The company also donates £1m to community groups and charities suggested by customers every year.
Story by Clare Weir in Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday 30/11/11 http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/business-news/waitrose-eyes-move-into-ulster-retail-market-16084378.html