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Mixed messages from local traders but shopping centres voice cautious optimism

Story by Danielle Harney

Thursday, 2nd July, 2009 9:00am

The local economy could finally be turning a corner, as new businesses look set to open their doors in both of Athlone"s shopping centres within the next few weeks.

Retailers are reporting an increased footfall as the summer holidays kick in, and while sales may not have increased significantly yet, many business-owners are starting to become cautiously optimistic about the near future.

Two new tenants are due to sign new leases on stores in Golden Island shopping centre within the next few weeks.

'The signing of the leases are imminent for two stores, while with the third store there"s been a lot of interest expressed in that, strong interest,' said Golden Island manager Tony McDermott. 'We would hope to have them filled soon.'

Having Tesco and Penneys as the centre"s anchor stores is 'a big plus', added Mr McDermott. 'Our tenant mix is very good, Pennys is popular especially at this time of year, as are Boots and Elvery Sports... The footfall coming into Golden Island is bearing up. Customers are a lot more focused now on what they spend their money on. But the stores are bearing up.'

Things are also looking positive for Athlone Towncentre, where another two shops are due to open within the shopping centre before the end of the summer.

'There are new signings in the offing within the next couple of weeks,' confirmed marketing manager Shirley Delahunt.

Individual initiatives such as the recent price cuts announced by Marks and Spencer have already proved a major attraction to people which she said is 'bringing extra business' into the centre. 'There has been a natural lift over the last couple of weeks with the kids finishing school, there"s a lot more family business about,' she added.

Events and competitions such as the recent search for a Midlands Top Model also have a 'knock-on effect' for the various units and the retailers who got to showcase their clothes and accessories on the catwalk. Summer sales and regular competitions run by the centre, are all initiatives to get more customers into the centre and spending money over the summer, while the back to school market will re-surface in August.

While there are tourists visiting Athlone this summer, the hospitality business is not as good as last year.

According to Chris Vos, the manager of the Price of Wales Hotel right in the town centre, at the moment things are going 'fairly well' in the industry.

'It"s not on par to last year, but June was a pretty good month, July is looking well - especially with TriAthlone and August may be good,' he said. 'But there are tourists around, there"s a lot from the UK and America.'

The general consensus is that while the good weather may encourage more Irish to holiday at home this year, and nationally, room rates are cheaper this year, there is little more that hotels can do to entice people to take a break.

'The good weather did help with hotel bookings, but then our bar suffered because we"ve no beer garden. No matter what happens, there"s a good and bad side to it,' added Mr Vos. 'Everyone"s just got to knuckle down and get on with it.'

Local traders and small firms are still feeling the pinch, with many reluctant to go on the record to talk about how bad things are.

David FitzGerald, spokesperson of the Church Street Traders" Group and proprietor of Athlone Gift and Design, said that 'things are still the same' business-wise as when the recession first hit retailers locally.

'There"s been no major uplift yet,' he said. 'There"s no feelgood factor around. It"s no longer the same as in the late "90s or early "00s. It"s still hard times.'

However, Mr FitzGerald said that he thinks that business is not as bad this year as it was for Church Street traders during August last year, when the ill-fated one-way system was temporarily introduced in the town.

One owner of a beauty salon in the town said that business remains 'steady' and that for many women, basic grooming like waxing and treatments such as fake tans for weddings, will continue to remain popular as they are now the norm. 'Summer is always a good time for us though, as people still want to make a big effort for weddings and other events,' she said.

However, she said that some clients who used to get regular get facials or massages, now book them less frequently.

But she pointed out that when money is tight, women will opt for cheaper 'pick-me-ups' such as a manicure or facial, as opposed to spending hundreds on a shopping spree or more expensive spa treats.

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