Shoppers break for the Border

 

The North has replaced New York as the chosen destination for Christmas bargain hunters from the Republic - and the shopping centres there are set to get even busier

IT'S 12 NOON ON a wintry weekday in Belfast and the carpark of Ikea is jammed with Southern reg cars.

There's a man trying to jam half a flatpack wardrobe into his jeep, while his wife fills the front seat with an array of bright, Scandinavian household goods. You wonder where they'll sit.

Nearby, someone else has run out of storage but is desperately trying to shove a rolled-up rug into the remaining crack of space under the roof. Two vans with Dublin plates head off, packed to the gills with furnishings and children's toys.

A few hours later, and it's the same story 40 miles down the road at the Sainsbury's in Sprucefield shopping centre. The aisles are filled with Southern shoppers, some wrestling with the unique challenge of pushing two trolleys. I pass a couple from Dublin; he's pushing a trolley packed with infant formula, while her carriage is filled with alcohol. Someone else has over 20 bottles of spirits in one trolley. It seems only yesterday that the shopping trip of choice before Christmas was to jet across the Atlantic for a spree in the outlet stores on New York's Fifth Avenue. Now - sign of the straitened times we find ourselves in - the rage is for cross-Border raids to stock up on food staples and cheap booze.

Yesterday's announcement by the UK authorities of a 2.5 per cent cut in VAT is certain to make it even more attractive for shoppers from the Republic to make cross-Border forays in search of value. With our VAT rates rising by 0.5 per cent from next month and the UK rates falling, the gap in prices is set to widen even more.

Earlier this year, the National Consumer Agency found a margin of up to 30 per cent in food prices on either side of the Border. Since then, thanks to exchange rate variations and, now, diverging VAT rates, that margin is as much as 40 per cent, according to Bill Tosh, head of Dundalk chamber of commerce.

Drink, in particular, is markedly cheaper up North, so much so that Tosh believes the hospitality sector is bulk-buying alcohol in retail outlets across the Border because it is worth their while to do so. When a bottle of whiskey is €14 cheaper in the North and wine is just over half what it costs here, that's hardly surprising. No wonder Sainsbury's in Newry boasts that it sells more alcohol than any other of its stores.

Given his job, you might expect Tosh to trot out the Ibec line, about how much more it costs to do business in the Republic because of higher labour, energy and waste costs. It's refreshing, therefore, to hear him acknowledge that one reason consumers are heading north is to escape rip-offs.

"Yes, these are factors in doing business, but our prices have drifted hugely. There has to be profiteering somewhere. The Government needs to take a long look at every element of the value chain to see where costs are being added."

Larry Goodman, he points out, provides much of the meat sold on the island from his headquarters in Co Louth. "It's all the same meat but somehow it ends up costing twice as much down south. That's obscene." Letter-writers to this newspaper have pointed out that even goods manufactured in the Republic, such as Kerrygold butter or The Irish Times, are significantly cheaper across the Border.

But are we Southern shoppers shooting ourselves in the foot by taking our custom up North? Dublin Lord Mayor Eibhlin Byrne thinks so; her calls for Dubliners to exercise "civic patriotism" by doing their Christmas shopping in their home city have pricked the conscience of many without actually stemming the flow across the Border. "Don't get me wrong; I love shopping and I have enjoyed my trans-Atlantic trips to shop in New York as much as the next woman. But these are critical times. People need to be aware that when they make the decision to go North they are taking their spending out of the city and there will be repercussions.

"Every business that fails means less rates for the council and, therefore, fewer services. Jobs lost could be those of your friends and neighbours. If, after Christmas, shops have to close down, it will in part be your fault."

Byrne insists there is good value to be had in Dublin and suggests consumers taper their ambitions for Christmas rather than spending outside the jurisdiction. "If you can buy 12 bottles of wine in Belfast for a certain price, why not settle for 10 bottles of the same in Dublin?"

It might seem strange for a member of the Republican Party to be suggesting that patriotism cannot be exercised north of the Border. After all, isn't the most patriotic thing to buy Irish-made goods wherever they are sold (and, preferably, at the cheapest prices), especially when the retailer down South may be foreign-owned?

However, as Lord Mayor Byrne says, her loyalty is to the capital. "This is not about being anti-Newry or anti-Northern, only pro-Dublin."

Tosh says a short-term cut in VAT rates to match the British initiative would help Southern businesses, already struggling to get their hands on working capital, to compete. This seems unlikely, however, so the flood of cars up the M1 and other roads to the North is set to continue right up to Christmas and, most probably, well beyond.

BARGAIN HUNTERS A USER'S GUIDE TO SPENDING IN THE NORTH

If you're happy to put up with the roadworks, the long distances, the queues and even the guilt factor, there are real savings to be made by doing your Christmas shopping north of the Border.

But like any campaign, a cross-Border shopping trip needs to be well planned in order to minimise stress and maximise savings. The most popular excursion these days is to combine a visit to the Ikea store in Belfast with a food shopping expedition in one of the North's big supermarkets, which makes for a long day's work.

If you are going to Ikea for the first time, it is well worth studying the company's website in advance, so you know how to get there, and how to get around the store, as efficiently as possible. Tripping around Ikea can be a marathon, so best too to study the catalogue in advance , or at least have a decent idea of what you want to buy.

If you're planning to buy big or important items, it can be worthwhile to ring in advance to check availability. Although

Ikea boasts good children's facilities, my advice is to leave them at home if you are serious about fitting everything in on a one-day trip. Go during the week if you can, to avoid the crowds. And don't forget to bring some sterling for the canteen (it takes credit cards, at a cost of 70p, and debit cards).

With the Christmas shopping season fully underway, there are already long queues to get into the major shopping centres on the Border. There is a Sainsbury's across from Ikea, but we opted to get back on the Dublin side of Belfast and stopped instead at a store in Sprucefield Park, near Lisburn. The store was relatively empty mid-week and the value speaks for itself (see prices panel).

The journey from Dublin to Ikea takes a full 2.5 hours, and that's without any major delays apart from the return on the M50 at teatime and before the Christmas rush started in earnest. By the end of the day, after two frenetic bouts of shopping and five hours driving, much of it in the dark, I was utterly exhausted.

Compare the prices

Lisburn Dublin

Weetabix 48-pack €3.72 €4.63

Carr's water biscuits €0.98 €1.84

Heinz baked beans €0.49 €0.49

Bran Flakes €2.52 €3.39

Carlsberg €8.37 €13.49 (12 pack) (8 pack)

Guinness €17.23 €7.79 (12 pack) (4 pack)

Kerrygold butter €1.18 €2.38

Penfold red wine €6.89 €13.15

Faustino V Reserva €11.49 €16.79