The public has been urged to "make every penny count" when they spend GBP100 on a pre-paid card to be given out under a government economic stimulus scheme from September. ut one independent retailer said he feared smaller traders would lose out, with most people likely to spend the windfall with supermarkets that have traded unimpeded since the pandemic began. Adults will be able to register online for the GBP100 card in September, though they will have to already be on the electoral register, which is currently being updated. The cards would then be ready for spending in bricks and mortar stores or hospitality venues during September and October.
Online shopping, whether with independent retailers or giants like Amazon, is barred. The GBP145m stimulus scheme is intended to encourage people to spend on the high street -- particularly at independent retailers who had to shut during lockdowns. However, spending at big supermarkets like Lidl, Sainsbury's and Tesco, is permitted although the design of the card incorporates a "Spend Local" logo.
Roger Pollen, head of the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, said: "We would urge users of the scheme to consider those businesses that have been most impacted by the pandemic and use their pre-paid card where it can spread most benefit." A report commissioned by the Department for the Economy on how the scheme could operate said 63% of consumers indicated they would use their voucher to support independent retailers. It also identified the autumn as the best time in which to launch the scheme.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the scheme would be a welcome boost for high street retailers. "It will create a virtuous circle of spending that supports our economy, boosts local commerce and gives our shoppers some retail and hospitality therapy. "We would encourage everyone who is eligible to register for the scheme and make every penny count."
However, Gary Connolly Close, co-owner of florist Memento on Belfast's Ormeau Road, said he had reservations about the scheme. "As a consumer it's fantastic, it's a great thing, and I wouldn't turn it down. "With my business cap on, it's still a great idea, but how am I going to stand out among every other business, and is it going to make big business richer?
"It's GBP145m -- that's a lot money to take out and I wonder is there good value for money in it," he added. No indication has been given of how much card provider Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) is being paid. But with the total scheme costing GBP145m, and 1.4m vouchers of GBP100 to be distributed, that will leave GBP5m to cover costs.
Mr Connolly Close said: "To me, spending it in Tesco isn't boosting the local economy, and giving it to big retailers who already made big bucks when we were having to close in lockdowns, doesn't make sense. "But I certainly will be working on a marketing initiative to get people to spend it with me, and I will think very carefully about how to make myself stand out from Tesco and Home Bargains. "If I market it to try and attract people away from big supermarkets, it could work out well.
But realistically, lower-income families aren't interested in my types of products. "They're thinking of next week's shop." And he said he thought the money could have benefited businesses in a more direct way.
But he added: "I'll be chasing those pre-paid cards and doing some savvy marketing to stand out from the crowd but I don't know how much it will benefit me in the long-term. "I hope people see if as the opportunity to treat themselves with nice flowers, then a nice cheese board from Indie Fude, the business next door to us. "But that's for the few... the vast number of people will probably use it for their weekly expenses.
"A lot of people will also go towards Victoria Square Shopping Centre where there is a big conglomerate of global retailers," he said. The luxury retailer Flannels, which is part of the former Sports Direct Group and incorporated into its Frasers store, would get a lot of custom following the launch of the scheme, Mr Connolly Close predicted. "That escalator to Flannels will be flat-out. "
Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said PFS had been appointed to administer the scheme after a "robust procurement process".
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald, chair of the Assembly's economy committee, said she hoped measures would be taken to ensure everyone could access the application process.
And SDLP economy spokesperson Sinead McLaughlin urged the public to use the card to support locally-owned independent businesses.