Northern Ireland as a top tourism destination is not something anyone, arguably even Northern Irish people, could have anticipated a decade ago.

Belfast royal avenue

But the country has somehow found a way to put a smiling face on its less cheery tourist attractions.

Taxi tours of Belfast’s murals, bus rides to the Game of Thrones locations that hosted some of the TV show’s bloodiest scenes, and a gigantic museum dedicated to the world’s least-successful ship are just some of the available experiences for those visitors disembarking the record number of cruise ships stopping in the capital this year.

Eighty-nine ships will have docked in Belfast by the end of the year – there were just two in 1999.

“In a country where Tesco didn’t arrive until 1996, family-run retailers had a greater influence for longer”

“We are seeing big change – change for the better,” says Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the country’s independent retailer trade association, Retail NI.

He hopes that the international interest sparked from tourism will help foster an outward-looking nation – he points to the turnaround of Dubai into one of the world’s premier retail destinations as an example of what’s possible when tourism and retail offer compliment each other.

“Not that I’m comparing Belfast to Dubai of course,” he laughs.

There is perhaps more shared between the two cities than many would realise, however. No, there’s no Louis Vuitton outlets. But you can find luxury-standard customer service where you’d least expect it.

The Troubles – which dragged on from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – left the country’s retail scene lagging in everything except service.

In a country where Tesco didn’t arrive until 1996, family-run retailers had a greater influence for longer. This has created a sector where shopkeepers must treat every customer like a local, or risk the wrath of word-of-mouth.

Quirks of a region

Even Marks & Spencer, which is celebrating 50 years in Northern Ireland last week, knows that its success still hinges on one-to-one interactions. It’s something that head of region Ryan Lemon is keenly aware of.

“I spoke to a lady this morning – Pat, [who] has been shopping in the Belfast M&S for 50 years. She loves coming in because, ‘I love your staff, they say hello back, they know about me and I know about them’,” he says.

M&S hovis belfast 50 years pic

M&S celebrates 50 years in Northern Ireland

Ryan Lemon celebrates M&S’ 50-year anniversary in Northern Ireland with some Hovis potato farls

The country has long had a love affair with Marks & Spencer – Northern Irish customers are much more likely than their mainland counterparts to do a weekly shop with the retailer, rather than a top-up, for example.

This is due to savvy marketing that leans heavily on the use of local suppliers and a thought-through offer that sees no shortage of local fare, including potato farls, on the shelves.

It also benefits from a lack of upmarket competition – there are no Waitrose stores in the province, for instance.

M S Belfast Exterior 1989

M&S Belfast Exterior 1989

M&S Belfast in 1989

But most of all there’s a sense of loyalty to the brand – “because it started here in and around when the Troubles kicked off and it’s stayed through those times and grown,” says Lemon, who himself started with the company on the shopfloor at the age of 16.

“We’ve got 20 stores in Northern Ireland and we hope to grow significantly over the next five years.

“The business sees NI as a very stable region. The Lisburn store, for instance, is the top performing store, in terms of food, in the entire business.”

When we speak, Lemon is preparing for an in-store celebration of the retailer’s regional anniversary. He assures me that valued customer Pat will be attending the festivities.

Vacant look

Although Belfast has an increasingly buoyant retail market today, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the hardships of retailers in the country.

In 2014 there was an outcry when, over the course of six years, £8.2m had been spent to create fake shopfronts promoting a positive image of the region. High streets were made to look better for when the G8 summit and Italy’s Giro d’Italia cycle race came to town.

It still has the highest shop vacancy rate in the whole of the UK – stubbornly sticky at 14-16%.

“We’ve been trying to change the conversation – those empty spaces are the businesses of the future,” says Roberts.

“We’ve seen a number of places, like Ballymena Business Centre, where they’ve set up incubator units for start-ups to gain their first rung on the ladder.”

Ballymena Business Centre Town Centre Incubation Space

Ballymena Business Centre Town Centre Incubation Space

Ballymena Business Centre’s town centre incubation space

Roberts is referring to an enterprise charity, based around 40 minutes from Belfast, that’s boosting the town with an incubation hub for retailers in the creative sector.

Since 2014, over 100 entrepreneurs have had the experience of a town centre retail environment thanks to the charity’s initiatives.

Ballymena Business Centre chief executive Melanie Christie Boyle thinks that replicating its success could be simple. “Things that can help are councils using discretionary powers in terms of rates and planning,” she says.

“If we were to work in partnership with councils, it’s not very difficult and we could get loads of these projects up and running.”

Roberts agrees. “We need to go further and faster in relation to a joined-up dereliction strategy. There is a great challenge in many of our rural towns,” he says.

Retail NI is behind an empty premises rates relief scheme, by which if businesses take up an empty shop they only pay 50% of rates for the first year of trade. Roberts hopes this will play its part in regenerating more rural high streets.

“With the right policy agenda, there’s no reason why Northern Ireland’s town centres couldn’t enjoy a renaissance,” insists Roberts.

He also acknowledges that many of Northern Ireland’s independent retailers need to be increasingly nimble by understanding the wider trends affecting retail across the UK.

“We’ve got to put the social into shopping, and go further and faster with that. Shoppers want choice, they want something that’s different, distinctive.”

A local turnaround

A family-run retailer that’s working on creating a modern offer is Menarys.

The department store business goes back to 1923 and has 16 stores, offering a wide range of fashion and homewares under a local fascia.

The business partners with 40 top brands including Topshop, Quiz, linens specialist Bedeck and top performers like Benefit, Gerry Webber and Guess, which are “where our core space is and the brands that people know us for”, says managing director Stephen McCammon.

Menarys, Lisburn

Menarys, Lisburn

Menarys, Lisburn

Despite the relative lack of chain department stores in Northern Ireland – another hangover from the Troubles – Menarys has not had an easy time recently.

July 2014 saw the business enter into a CVA as it found itself in a “perfect storm” of unsustainable leases, the spectre of commercial property debt separate from the retailing business, and losses of £3.6m in the year to January 2013.

McCammon and his colleagues have since, however, pulled the retailer back into the black. The CVA enabled the business to exit the offending leases, and a change of bank also followed.

“We also had to reposition ourselves,” says McCammon. “We’ve moved towards a slightly more value-driven product.

Menarys beauty hall, Lisburn

Menarys beauty hall, Lisburn

Menarys beauty hall, Lisburn

“For the last 11 weeks we’re trading 5% on last year. Trading profit increased from about £162,000 in January 2016 to about £248,000 for January 2017. While it’s modest, we’re delighted.”

Menarys is also following the example of its mainland counterparts in moving towards a more experiential and service-driven strategy, while continuing to lean on its famed customer service driven by loyal staff  – over a third of the 320 people on its payroll have been with the company for 10 years or more.

Menarys now has partnerships with Beauty Bar, which runs nail and blow dry bars in its Cookstown and Omagh branches, and Zip Yard, an Northern Ireland-based clothing alterations provider that will open in Menarys’ Rushmere store in the coming weeks.

“The hair, nails and beauty element has been really strong for us,” says McCammon.

“This is to offer experiences that can’t be found online, where people can come and engage with us and the teams and the environment. It’s something we want to keep experimenting with.”

Hospitable retail

Menarys has also had great success partnering with local cafe chain Bob & Berts.

Roberts thinks that hospitality, both in terms of good service and working with the sector, is the future for retail in Northern Ireland.

Buoyed by the 2016 Year of Food and Drink, many local entrepreneurs are seeing an opportunity to connect the country’s rich food supplier network with customers via restaurants and small retail spaces.

It seems natural for a country where agriculture is an impressive 1.2% of GVA compared to 0.5% for the UK as a whole.

Ambitious family farm shops like McKee’s in Newtownards are finding ways to intermingle retail and hospitality offers to create something more than the sum of its parts.

The country store, which started as a small shop across the yard from the family home as a supplement to the farm’s supply business, now features an always-full restaurant using McKee produce and other local suppliers alongside a deli counter, sweet shop, bakery and an expansive gift shop with homewares and accessories.

It’s a prime example of how retail and hospitality are organically linked. “They stand and fall together,” says Roberts. “They’re facing many of the same challenges, but we have the potential for many of the same opportunities as well.

“And who knows where that process will take us? It may be that the need for separate retail and hospitality business organisations… well, in the future we may all stand together,” says Roberts. “But that’s for another day.”

Brexit: more confusion

Predicting the effects of Brexit is proving as much of a head-scratcher in Northern Ireland as it is in the Republic.

“We’re unsure of what it means,” says Stephen McCammon, managing director of Menarys department store, which has two of its 17 stores south of the border.

“We’re making a concerted effort to import more directly from overseas to give us a little more margin comfort.

“It’s certainly going to put pressure on prices and margins, but what it really means in the next five to 10 years, I’d have to leave that to people better educated,” he laughs.

“Quite often it’s forgotten that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another EU member state,” says Glyn Roberts of Retail NI.

A return to a Troubles-era border cannot be tolerated, Roberts makes clear, as often workers live on the other side of it and many businesses straddle both countries. “We’ve also got to make sure that EU nationals, who make a big contribution to our members’ businesses, will still be able to stay and contribute,” he stresses.

And finally, Retail NI members continue to have an outward-looking attitude at the top of their wish list for the country. “We’ve got to ensure Northern Ireland is attractive to shoppers from the Republic of Ireland, the UK, the EU and the wider world,” says Roberts.