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Traders fighting for their survival

Independent retailers, the vibrant lifeblood of communities across Ireland, are being relentlessly squeezed from all sides.

The crisis comes as party leaders spend much of the election campaign arguing over televised debates, the EU/IMF bailout and bank debt restructuring.

But every candidate on the canvass has been faced with the real economic contagion on the high street -- boarded up shop windows and vacant premises.

Retailers are in a battle for survival and every week dozens of independent shopkeepers, especially in the fashion trade, are signalling surrender in the face of banks that no longer work, sky-high rates and rents and a customer base now too frightened to spend.

More than 400 stores closed last month, according to Retail Excellence Ireland and that figure may be be conservative.

Dozens of small boutiques specialising in ladies' and mens' fashions are unable to keep trading after a disastrous, weather-hit Christmas and New Year.

That massive challenge was compounded by a triple whammy of huge reductions in take-home pay because of tax increases and the new Universal Social Charge (USC), big mortgage hikes and other cost of living increases including health insurance.

It means consumer confidence has been shattered.

For Sandra Walsh of Sandz Boutique the decision to close her Blackrock store after five years' trading was based on a hard-headed business decision.

Last night she locked up her Blackrock store for the last time.

"People are too scared to spend," she said.

For Sandra it is a case of retrenchment rather than surrender. She will now concentrate her efforts on her other Sandz outlet in Dunville Avenue in Ranelagh with confidence that a loyal customer base built up in Blackrock will follow her to Dublin 6.

"Before I got into this business 14 years ago I was a nurse so I am practical and I realised that the numbers were not stacking up. It is much harder to do business. The truth is that any semblance of consumer confidence has been really hit hard by the Budget cuts," she said.

The plight of local businesses in Dun Laoghaire and Blackrock is a major election issue locally and Fine Gael candidate, councillor Mary Mitchell O'Connor, said that the "real economy" has to be the major priority for the incoming government.

"What is happening in Dun Laoghaire and Blackrock is a microcosm of the entire country. There is the issue of rates and there is the major problem that the banks are simply not open for business in the way they should be. Shopkeepers are finding it increasingly difficult to get credit," she said.

"I have spoken to dozens of retailers and the story they tell has become depressingly familiar. They find that their overdraft has been cut or cancelled altogether. We have to get business working again," she said.

Gerard Burke of Gerard Burke Agencies has spent a lifetime in the wholesale fashion trade and he has been stunned by the number of closures in the last two months.

"The scary part for wholesalers is that we supply lines of credit to the retailers. The knock-on impact is that we get squeezed by the banks and then we have to squeeze the retailer. Suddenly since the banks have stopped giving credit we, the wholesalers, have become the financier of the retailer rather than the banks. Fashion is a seasonal business and what happens is that if a retailer runs into trouble because of an unsuccessful season then we lose confidence for the upcoming season because we are afraid that we might not get paid. It's a vicious circle," he said.

He said that he has heard of closures in every decent-sized town in Ireland.

"It is across the board from Listowel, Killarney and Tralee in Co Kerry; Newbridge, and Naas in Co Kildare; Galway, Mullingar and Thurles. A lot of these were really fine shops run by real hard-working, decent people. It's a terrible shame," he said.

"Another problem is that when a shop closes it reduces confidence in the whole town. There are so many factors at play including the issues of rents and rates and wages and the fact that people have less money to spend," said Gerard.

"People who open shops throw their heart and soul into it but they are also normal people as well. They have mortgages and kids going to college and perhaps a partner whose job is under threat. On top of that they have to deal with declining business, pressure from the banks on business loans, rate demands and not enough people coming into their shops. The pressure is immense," he added.

Sunday Independent