Newtownards department store manager welcomes return to ‘some form of normality’

The manager of a Co Down town’s department store has welcomed a return to “some form of normality” as it reopened fully for the first time since lockdown.

Joanne Neale, manager of the china and gift department at Wardens
Joanne Neale, manager of the china and gift department at Wardens

Keith Irvine, manager of Wardens in Newtownards, said it felt good to reopen, but emphasised it was too early to count the cost of the damage.

Wardens is one of many larger stores with street entrances in Northern Ireland that was permitted to reopen from Monday.

Economy minister Diane Dodds has indicated plans to allow smaller retail stores to reopen from Friday.

Wardens, which dates back to 1877, was able to reopen its hardware section three weeks ago in accordance with easements to coronavirus regulations announced then by the Stormont executive.

But Tuesday was its’ first full reopening since the start of lockdown.

A number of customers were waiting at the front door and back doors for the reopening, and were instructed to use disinfectant hand gel and the one-way system as they entered.

“We’ve had a very, very busy three weeks and today is the first day we have opened up the entire shop – furniture, beds, cookware, homeware and china department,” Mr Irvine told the PA news agency.

“Its very good to get back to some form of normality and doing what we enjoy doing.”

Mr Irvine said he hoped the strong independent retail offering on the Newtownards high street would stand it in good stead for recovery.

“Time will tell what the future will hold for our business, and every business for that matter, but we just hope with our local support and with our customers back that we will get over this hurdle,” he said.

“We have always had a very loyal customer base and we look forward to welcoming them all back. Some might be a bit dubious about coming back so soon but in time I am confident we will have them all back.”

The shop employs 52 members of staff.

Mr Irvine said many had been furloughed with five working when the hardware sector reopened, and 15 brought in for the wider reopening on Tuesday.

“Our intention is to bring a third wave in towards the end of June and that will all depend on footfall and business,” he said.

“Its very early days but we just hope that we can recoup the business that we have lost.”