Business

For the record . . . let's consider some radical remedial action for city centre

Some radical thinking is now required to help Belfast city centre's trade in the wake of the Primark fire. Photo: High Russell

IN March it was reported that sales of vinyl records and CDs had, for the first time since 2011, overtaken those of digital music and streaming. It remains to be seen how sustainable that trend is but when even supermarkets are stocking classic albums in their vinyl format it is clear that the old medium has made a comeback and it looks like it is here to stay.

We're a long way from the days of rushing into the city centre on the first day of a new album release to pick up a copy. When I was in school it was quite common for a group of dedicated music fans to make that journey by black taxi into town on a Monday (albums were always released on a Monday) to buy the latest LP by U2, The Smiths, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, sometimes Prefab Sprout or The Cure and countless others.

We would go from store to store looking for the best price. Harrisons on Castle Street might have been selling The Joshua Tree for £5.49 with Makin' Tracks on Fountain Lane pricing it at £4.99. When you are 14 or 15 years old, that 50p mattered. At that time Belfast music fans were well served with the Gramophone Shop, Golden Discs, Caroline Music on Ann Street, Hectors House and Good Vibrations. I can't recall exactly when the chains like megastores like Our Price, HMV and Virgin arrived in our city but those smaller, independent shops were the ‘cooler' places where the real music fans met to browse, chat, listen and thankfully for the traders, to buy as well.

The digital world has changed that, and like most people I now have a Spotify account and that's usually how I access music these days. There are still a few artists whose hard copy CD or vinyl record I will want to buy on the day of release, maybe that's out of habit, or loyalty to Bruce Springsteen and U2, I'm not sure.

While the digital revolution did change music shopping forever, the return of vinyl shows that trends can be reversed, and people will adapt their retail habits when the product and the marketing is right. Its a lesson the retail world would do well to apply across the board in the battle against online shopping.

Getting shoppers to change their habits is a challenge which faces our own capital city too. Anyone who ever said to a school or a boyfriend/girlfriend, ‘I'll meet you outside Primark' will have shed an internal tear and maybe a real one too as they saw the sight that is now Bank Buildings following the ferocious fire which took hold a fortnight ago.

The debate about whether the external facade can be or should be preserved is now well under way and its a hard one to call. It is surely vital that Belfast retains as much that keeps us unique as possible. If we end up as simply another ‘anytown, anywhere' with high street brands, one after another, in unimaginative and dull buildings, then it isn't Belfast any more.

If the Bank Buildings can be safely restored, that's the challenge which needs to be met. That's not to dismiss in any way the counter argument out forward by some traders that speed and pragmatism should be the main factors. Some have called for the building to be demolished, quickly. Peter Boyle, who own Argento jewellers made an impassioned plea to decision makers to simply get on with the job of knocking the building down and reopening all roads, and as a businessman who is feeling the impact, it was easy to empathise.

We are now officially a ‘resilient city', that status having been conferred by the Resilient Cities Network. It's time to deploy that resilience and tackle the Primark/Bank Buildings situation as imaginatively as possible and in a way which supports existing traders both those within the fire cordon and those outside of it.

Being fair to Belfast City Council, it has fronted up well in the aftermath of the fire, with mayor Deirdre Hargey leading the way in setting out the steps being taken by Council officials to support traders and to work in partnership with the Fire Service and other bodies. Poor Stephen Nolan was taken aback live on air when Cllr Hargey broke convention by actually answering the questions he was posing.

One twitter user @Mi_Bonn prompted a positive online response when he suggested the pedestrianisation of Royal Avenue while the Bank Building situation is addressed, placing tables, chairs and hosting events not usually associated with that part of the city.

It's worth considering taking some remedial action which is outside the usual lines. The fire was unexpected, was significant, and is having a major negative impact. Why not respond in kind, with something unexpected, significant and which really brings people back to that retail area? Certainly the the traders of Castle Street and the surrounding area deserve support.

People can change their habits. Instead of avoiding the area around the fire site because it's awkward, cordoned off and even upsetting to look at, shoppers could be attracted back if the response is right.

Harrisons, Caroline Music etc are long gone now, unfortunately. But the rebirth of vinyl shows that the song doesn't have to always remain the same.

:: Brendan Mulgrew (brendan.mulgrew@mwadvocate.com) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Claire Aiken

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