Wal-Mart's UK Asda supermarket chain is to create 250 new jobs in Northern Ireland by Christmas, it said in an announcement detailing its entry into the market there, following clearance of its plans by the Office of Fair Trading.

 "We are delighted that we can now begin work on our NI store roll-out," said John Deasy, ASDA NI director. "Entering this market represents a very exciting stage in ASDA's development and we are looking forward to becoming a valuable part of the local community.  ASDA works very hard for its customers on all fronts - every day low pricing, quality, range, service, accessibility and, with products like George, real added value - and we are looking forward to bringing all of this to our NI customers."
 
Representing the most significant development in NI's retail sector to date, ASDA's arrival involves a £30m (US$53.5m) refurbishment programme to transfer 12 existing Safeway stores to ASDA, following agreement with WM Morrison Plc in June this year, it said.  It is anticipated that the refurbishment programme will be complete by December 2005.   

ASDA will kick off the intensive three-month refurbishment schedule at the beginning of September, which will see extensive upgrading and enhancement carried out at all stores.  To facilitate this work, individual stores will be closed for approximately four to six weeks on a staggered basis.  All regional customers and communities will be notified of closure periods and opening dates.   

Based on current estimates, the expectation is that stores at Bangor, Coleraine, Cookstown and Ballyclare will be trading as ASDA by mid October, followed by Kilkeel and Strabane by the end of October.  Belfast's Westwood and Shore Road stores will be open for business by mid to late November along with Omagh and Dundonald; Enniskillen and Newtownards will follow by early December. 

ASDA is committed to retaining all existing Safeway staff - over 2000 employees - and also plans to increase its overall NI workforce by 250 by Christmas.  This will represent an average of 20 additional jobs per store.  A province-wide recruitment drive will be launched in the coming weeks.  All employees will undergo ASDA's bespoke training programme during the store closure periods.

The average gross footage of the new stores will be 52000 sq feet, with Newtownards, Coleraine, and Westwood the largest stores occupying 78000, 76000 and 61000 gross sq feet respectively. 

George, ASDA's world famous fashion label and one of the most anticipated features of the company's arrival, will be available in all but three stores, while ASDA Home & Leisure goods will be available at all of the stores.  Petrol will be available at five of the stores - Bangor, Coleraine, Cookstown, Newtownards and Omagh.  Customers in these areas and further afield will benefit from lower fuel costs as ASDA implements its commitment to being the first retailer to drop fuel prices and the last to raise them.  Beer, Wines & Spirits will be sold at all 12 stores (subject to licences being transferred).    

ASDA has confirmed that it intends to continue working with all of Safeway's NI product suppliers to ensure existing ranges of local products are available in all its converted stores.  In addition, the company aims to recruit more local suppliers to support its award winning local sourcing programme.  The company outlined these commitments directly to local suppliers when it met with them at a special supplier conference held in Belfast recently.   

In line with this local supply policy, ASDA has commissioned 10 local contractors to carry out the refurbishment programme.  ASDA has also confirmed that it will continue to manage its distribution needs through Larne-based Wincanton Plc, which previously handled distribution for Safeway.