LONDON (FNS) -- British food retailers are hoping they can find a pot of gold at the end of the Irish rainbow.
All the leading chains are eyeing the market in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as an area for future expansion. J. Sainsbury set off the stampede with its announcement in June of plans to invest $157 million (100 million pounds) to open seven stores in Northern Ireland. The first is expected to open in August 1996.
All the stores will be 35,000 to 40,000 square feet in size and will carry the full range of Sainsbury's fresh and packaged products. David Sainsbury, the company's chairman, said there is the potential for it to open up to 12 stores in Northern Ireland in the near term and that could serve as a springboard for Sainsbury's to expand into the Republic of Ireland.
Sainsbury's announcement was followed by Tesco, which said it will build a 12,400-square-foot Tesco Metro store in Royal Avenue in Belfast. It indicated this is the first of a chain of Tesco stores in Northern Ireland, saying it intends to buy other sites in Northern Ireland as part of its U.K. development program.
Argyll, owner of Safeway in the United Kingdom, also is understood to be looking for sites in Northern Ireland.
The rush into Northern Ireland follows tougher planning restrictions in the United Kingdom and the increasingly competitive retail environment. The Northern Ireland market represents an opportunity since it is dominated by three local chains -- Wellworths, owned by Fitzwilton, and Crazy Prices and Stewarts, both owned by Associated British Foods. There is speculation that Tesco may be in talks to buy Stewarts, although Tesco declined to comment.