Northern Ireland retail and hospitality bodies have urged shoppers here to spend their GBP100 high street voucher locally, after reports emerged of some people using it to buy Amazon vouchers from supermarkets. he GBP145 million Spend Local scheme allows the card to be spent in "bricks and mortar" businesses up until November 30, with the last day to apply being October 25. During Assembly questions to the Economy Minister Gordon Lyons last month, UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt pointed out that the cards could be used to buy Amazon vouchers from supermarket branches. At the time Mr Lyons acknowledged this point but said he believed the public would act in the intended spirit of the scheme and support smaller shops.
Other online retailers offering physical gift vouchers can also be bought in supermarkets using the card. Both Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster have urged the public here to use the scheme in order to support Northern Ireland's high street. Speaking to BBC NI's Nolan Show on Wednesday, Retail NI chief Glyn Roberts said the idea of purchasing gift vouchers for online retailers "completely goes against the ethos and intention" of the card.
"It is completely wrong and we would encourage consumers not to do that," he said. "We have been promoting the virtues of independent retailers, what they do and their role in the community. It is absolutely crucial people support those businesses as that is what the voucher is all about."
Colin Neill from Hospitality Ulster added: "Look, we all have to accept there are people maybe less fortunate than you and I, that this GBP100 puts food in their cupboard. "But I think there is a huge difference between someone going and buying groceries in one of our supermarkets to feed their kids and using it for an Amazon voucher. "I think at this point we should be appealing to them [the supermarkets] and they should come out and make a statement and say they should no longer accept [the card] for that type of purchase."
During the show a number of callers admitted they would be using the Spend Local card to purchase vouchers for the online retail giant. One man called Graham told the show: "When I get my money, I am going to nip down and buy a voucher and I am going to spend it on Amazon. "I am going to buy on Amazon something I can get for maybe half the price I can buy through my local retailer."
While the cards cannot be used online or for gambling or legal services like penalties, according to the Department for the Economy there is no technical way to prevent online gift vouchers being purchased in a store. They said the "limits of the technology" mean it is "not possible to distinguish between items within someone's shopping basket". In a statement from a department spokesperson, they instead encouraged the public to think of the local retailers who have been impacted by the pandemic and said an advertising campaign is designed to encourage this.
"The High Street Scheme is designed to stimulate demand in local businesses, including retail and hospitality sectors, following the pandemic," they said. "However, the scheme has also been designed to be as simple to use as possible in order to allow the public to spend their GBP100 pre-paid card in local businesses. "It was set up so that businesses in Northern Ireland that can accept a debit or credit card as payment for goods or services they sell, can also accept the Spend Local cards as payment.
"While it is possible to purchase some goods which will have less benefit to our local businesses, the Department would discourage this." They added: "Indeed, the Department has been clear in its messaging to all card holders - use your Spend Local card to help those retail, hospitality and other sectors in your local area that have been most impacted by the pandemic. "This message has been embraced by many of our local business owners who are encouraging card holders to spend a little to give a big effect.
We encourage Nolan Show listeners to do the same."