Galway’s commercial sector apprehensive of outside factors for 2018

Shoppers in the city centre during the opening day of the sales.

While retailers across the county are generally optimistic about the year just gone – and with hopes high that 2018 will improve – online sales and Brexit uncertainty continue to challenge the sector.

For the last two years the Wild Atlantic Way has had a massive impact on visitor numbers to Clifden.

More overseas and local tourists are descending on the capital of Connemara and they are coming earlier in the season and staying later.

Lisa King, whose family run King’s Paper and Gift Shop on Main Street, believes business is up by nearly a third for 2016 and 2017.

“Footfall is definitely way up. In the summer it’s brilliant – this time of the year we don’t get as many tourists, it’s mainly locals, but the Wild Atlantic Way is definitely drawing people in as early as February and March and they are still here to the end of October,” she exclaims.

“Clifden was always a destination in Connemara but the Wild Atlantic Way has really put us on the map – with Americans, French, Italians, Germans. They have spent more money marketing it last year and this year and you can certainly feel the impact of that.

“And it’s not just the route. The Marconi site is a real draw, there’s a real buzz in the bars, in the cafes and restaurants. The food here is amazing.”

On December 10, the shop held its annual fundraiser for the Galway Hospice, with Santa arriving on a horse-drawn sleigh and a DJ blaring out Christmas music on the street. A phenomenal 180 children showed up with parents for their chat with Santa. As a member of the Clifden Chamber of Commerce, she believes retailers are very optimistic for the year ahead in one the county’s most westerly big town.

“I think it’s going to be a very good year – it’s getting progressively better every year and we did have a few dark years. We do wish the businesses would stay open throughout the year instead of closing in the winter. It’s heart-breaking to see so many closing as it means the street they’re on almost shuts down.”

Gort has again had a difficult trading year with no significant improvements as a result of the new motorway, believes local councillor and mart manager, Gerry Finnerty.

He also fears there is no significant room for growth in the town due to the lack of rental housing, with no major developments in the pipeline.

“There’s more traffic through the town for sure, but whether they’re stopping, I don’t think so. Things have got better for certain sections but they have got worse for other other sections,” he opines.

“The ones suffering the most are the likes of clothes shops, supply shops, gift shops DIY and electrical. Online shopping is really killing them. People are going in trying them on, checking items out, scanning them on the phone and then buying them online.

“Until there’s some form of a tax or penalty on the online retailers there’s going to be a huge haemorrhaging of normal traders. The grocery shops are fine, people will shop local for those.”

Earlier in December the Fianna Fáil Councillor was critical of the move by Bus Éireann to introduce cut-price tickets into the city from outlying towns.

“It’s absolutely crazy, it’s the other way it should be coming. That’s what the trains should be doing – offering cheap tickets for city residents to travel to the county towns to shop in comfort rather than bumping into each other on the streets.”

Cllr Finnerty said the town would fiercely oppose any move to open any service station on the motorway between Limerick and Tuam – it would kill off Gort altogether.

Where Gort is doing well is the array of food outlets currently serving up high quality, good value fare to those who do stop off in the town.

“The Government needs to introduce a town renewal scheme to change the empty commercial units to residential, which would solve the accommodation crisis in the town and encourage more people to live locally,” he urged.

He proposed at the last meeting of the Loughrea Municipal District that the €30,000 in development costs that Natus would have to pay for a major extension of their plant in Gort should be used to pay for the installation of a footpath, public lighting and safety measures on Gallagher’s Lane and on part of the Gort to Corofin Road.

One town which has had a healthy injection of life due to the opening of the motorway and bypass is Tuam, after a decade of horrendous trading conditions, between the big dig and roadworks.

“All the feedback I’m getting is numbers of people are up and turnover is up a good bit for November – it’s easier to get into Tuam and out of it. On a Thursday and Friday evening there would be a queue of cars three miles out the N17 towards Galway. That’s gone,” enthused local TD Sean Canney.

“While the impact of the bypass is certainly positive, as a town we need to make the most of the bypass and the fact we’re on the start of a motorway. People now see Tuam as a centre for logistics because of its location so there is a need for more warehouse space for distribution businesses.”

He said there were preliminary discussion ongoing between business owners to restart a local chamber of commerce, an organisation that foreign direct investors preferred to deal with before setting up an operation.

Looking ahead to 2018, he pointed to the large numbers of people now working in and around the town which should provide a boost for the town centre traders – 1,400 are employed in Valeo alone.

Other developments will also increase footfall – the old library is to be converted into offices for the Department of Social Protection, the old Grove site will house a mental health day centre and a disability unit, with a new primary care centre built at a cost of €14 million will also be a diagnostic centre where 200 x-rays and 60 ultrasounds will be carried out per week.

“I was in Tuam myself last Saturday and met a woman from Loughrea who said she had come to the town because of the great shopping. We need Tuam to market itself better. We have a huge amount of retail premises, many of them have been there for generations,” he continued.

“It’s not that long ago we had one restaurant in the town apart from the hotel – now we have at least ten. Rattigans are in the process of applying for 140 houses in Tuam, that’s a real sign that people are starting to believe in Tuam again.

“The talk of recession is gone, the doom and gloom has lifted. There are lots of things to be sorted out but we’re heading in the right direction.”

There is no doubt that 2018 will be one of the most challenging years for traders in Ballinasloe with the town set to be dug up from start to finish over 18 months in a major enhancement scheme, beginning early in the New Year.

The town will get new sewers, footpaths, kerbs, seating and lampposts with all overhead wires to go underground.

Previous ‘big digs’ in Loughrea and Tuam have led to a barrage of criticism from retailers that footfall had disappeared as shoppers were put off by road diversions and traffic delays.

“Everyone is in agreement it is badly needed, but there is a lot of concern and uncertainty about how they will bear the pain during the works,” admitted Lyn Donnelly, manager of the Ballinasloe Area Community Development Ltd in the Ballinasloe Enterprise Centre.

Some retailers reported the recent ‘Black Friday’ sales in November the best they have ever had.

“The vibe from retailers in Ballinasloe is that 2017 was certainly positive. Things picked up and it was much better than 2016. One retailer said he up was up in the order of 20%, another told me he was up by 5% so far this year – even before the Christmas sales kick in.”

A survey during the summer conducted by Loughrea traders found there were 31 empty units in the town centre with an estimated floor area of 8,000 square metres, much of it retail units. The claim was made in an objection by town centre businesses to a medical centre being transformed into a sports shop in the shopping centre on the outskirts of the town.

President of the Loughrea Chamber of Commerce, Shane Donnellan, said a number of new businesses have started up and closed down in the town during the year.

“Some of the challenges that small business face are rent and rate costs. Brexit and online shopping is also going to be an increasing threat to small towns like Loughrea. Loughrea town has fibre to the business broadband and so can compete with any major town or city in this respect, to allow people to work in Loughrea town and avoid travelling to the cities,” he told the Connacht Tribune.

The Chamber and its members continued to organise promotions in 2017 to entice consumers to Loughrea with more planned for 2018. The organisation also secured funding from the Town and Village Renewal Scheme to create lighting around Corry’s field.

Gerard Dervan of Dervan’s Fashions said that 2017 was a better one than the year before, with improving sentiment among consumers.

“However, it has still proved to be a trying one in retail Ireland and Loughrea was no exception. The poor summer weather and the loss of trading days in the third and fourth quarters due to inclement weather has made the going tough.

“While Loughrea was helped by several festivals and promotions and the effort around Christmas with advertising and street lighting improvements, money is still scarce with consumers and it takes effort to convert good sentiment into hard sales. “

He believes that the first two quarters of 2017 were fairly god but some ground was given up in the third, with none gained yet in the fourth.

“So, it’s all to play for in the final days of 2017. It will go down as not a bad year rather than a good one but it was progress, if slow and hard fought,” remarked Gerard.

“There is lots to be positive about but there are worries as well.  Increased shopping space planned for out of town will not help the core centre of the town, nor will fears caused by Brexit and online sales.

“But there are signs that the growth is at last spreading out from the Pale and I see the glass as half full rather than half empty.  Parking, our street scape and the overall appearance of our town will continue to be crucial issues in the future growth of retail trade in Loughrea in 2018.”

Michael Sheil from Beatty’s of Loughrea believes that it is a challenging time for retailers.

“There is no development happening, Brexit is an issue and probably will be going into 2018 and people are being cautious because of that.”