Helping retailers in rural communities to survive and grow will be the focus of a University of Ulster conference this week.
Retail experts from the Ulster Business School will present findings from interviews with 41 local business owners from across Northern Ireland at the Lodge Hotel, Coleraine, on Wednesday at 12.30pm.
The recent research examines rural retailers’ existing strengths, weaknesses and the factors affecting their ability to survive and grow in a very challenging market place.
It is part of a multi-million pound project - ‘Retail in Rural Regions’ – involving a number of other countries across Europe.
Professor Barry Quinn, who is heading up the project alongside Dr Karise Hutchinson, said: “We will be using these findings as a basis for identifying and organising training and support for these retailers.
“We want to identify practical ways to help these rural businesses survive and grow and in doing so help to improve service quality in rural communities.
“A big aspect of the project is the local and international support network that it provides for the participating businesses. This event will provide retailers with the opportunity to network with other businesses involved in the project and to hear at first hand the approaches that other retailers have used to improve their business.”
Dr Hutchinson explained that the next phase of the three-year project is vital in practically delivering training and support to rural retailers across Northern Ireland in order to help them grow their business.
She said: “Rural retailers are facing tough times as a result of the move into urban areas and competition from multi-national retailers and this project seeks to provide advice to shop owners to help them capitalise their business in the current climate.”
Researcher Lynsey McKitterick, who carried out the interviews with local retailers, added: “Many of the rural business owners said there was a perception that the smaller rural retail stores were more expensive than the multi-nationals.
“Some retailers provided examples where customers had told them that they could buy the same items in the rural stores cheaper, in some cases saving more than 50 per cent.
“This is one area we will be looking at - how can we change shoppers’ perceptions about buying from their local store.”
The Retail in Rural Regions project is being funded by the European Regional Development Fund and European Union’s Northern Periphery Programme.
The Ulster Business School at the University’s Coleraine campus was last year awarded 320,000 Euro to conduct research in Northern Ireland.
Ulster’s academics are working alongside European partners in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Faroe Islands.