Service with a smile, as customers shop local

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Perhaps an inordinate amount of Christmas shopping publicity is aimed at the purpose-built shopping malls, the town and city centres, the giant superstores, the plethora of multi-nationals.

But what about the community, family shops – those that give the personal service in the areas where they were brought up, who know their customers by name, who give that little bit of class, the ‘X factor’ that the big-hitters so often lack?

This week, the News Letter focused on the Cregagh Road in Belfast where the small, family emporiums proliferate, and where generations of the area have been served with a smile and a bit of healthy banter – and where the skill of haggling is often alive and well.

The proprietors took time off from their busy Christmas rush to tell us that the small businesses are still thriving in the famed east Belfast area, despite the invasion all over Northern Ireland of the leviathans of the business world.

We didn’t hear words like ‘corporate’ or ‘shareholders’ used once in our travels.

They do it in style. Take Johnston McFarlane Butchers, for example. Johnston, the owner, tells us proudly that he used to work in the butcher business on a Saturday during his schooldays, “and I left on a Friday and went full-time the very next day”.

He never looked back, and while he tells us that turkeys come in all shapes, sizes and preparations (the whole stuffed bird, a breast, boned and stuffed, “and with our unique, secret-recipe stuffing”), there’s more to it than that.

“Ducks and geese and also in,” he said.

“This year, we got an order for a large chicken, stuffed with a pheasant, stuffed with a partridge – a triple treat – and with haggis between the layers. We love challenges like that.”

And the price? About £50. “But you can’t put a price on skill,” Johnston says with pride.

Traditional hams are, of course, another popular Christmas fare, and Johnston and his team are working flat-out from 6am to 11pm over the weekend to satisfy the palate of the people of Cregagh, “who support us all year”.

Bethany Fruit Market also has an interesting tale to tell about the changes over Christmas in the past few years. Proprietor Paul Leckey said: “There’s a significant ethnic population in the area now, especially Polish, and their tradition is for a Yuletide banquet on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day turkey and all the trimmings.

“They go in for soups, and we stock Polish vegetables as well as our own traditional fare, and they make their own special soup. It accounts for about five per cent of our trade.

“The local Cregagh Road trade is, of course, our mainstay, and the tradition of making vegetable soup is alive and well.

“We sell sprouts by the truckload, and Clementine oranges are very popular this time of year.

“It’s building up to a real climax, and Christmas Eve will be hectic as usual. Everyone wants their vegetables fresh. We’ll be sold out and worked out by the time the Big Day comes.”

In Jean’s Wool Shop, owner Jenny Carlisle hardly had time to talk as the shop was filled with eager knitters, in to replenish their stocks.

“Knitting is becoming very popular again,” said Jenny. “The noble art of creating a garment for Christmas takes a bit of time, so we have been extra busy over the past couple of months.

“Scarves are extremely popular these days, and a knitted scarf is hard to beat.

“The more colourful the better. Customers are also knitting hats and sweaters and they are very acceptable presents, more appreciated than the bought variety. Love in every stitch.”

Clements Gift Shop has been a landmark at Cregagh Road for 25 years, although the current owner Maxine Bowan bought it over just a year ago, “and I might change the name, but I’ll see”.

Maxine goes for the quality end of the market, and was worried that the street protests of the past week or so would make it a rather flat Christmas, as there were few customers during the street demos.

“But my faithful customers have rallied round and I’ve caught up on last year,” she said. “With a busy weekend, I might even surpass it – I’ll know by Monday night.”

Despite the recession, Maxine says products like Belleek Pottery, Charlie Bears, Newbridge Silverware, Nicholas Mosse Pottery, Coeur de Lion Pottery and other sought-after makes are selling well.

“I’m very pleased with my first year on Cregagh Road,” she said. “The former owner created a good image and personal service and I’ve continued that and developed it.”

But while others are immersed in the Christmas rush, the usually busy Harris Rundle Optometrists are having something of a lull in trade, as invariably happens this time of the year.

Receptionist Elaine Jennings said: “It happens with businesses like optometrists and dentists. People are so taken up with the Christmas rush, buying presents and organising the meals, that our type of trade takes a back seat.

“It lasts from early December to mid-January, and then – as the Christmas bills are paid – things get back to normal. We offer a wide range of glasses, from £60 to the designer range.

“Cregagh is a mixed area from the social viewpoint and we sell the full range. We enjoy a wee bit of a rest at the turn of the year.”