M&S warns of Christmas 'gaps on shelves' in NI

21 July 2021

M&S will not be able to stock Christmas products in Northern Ireland (NI) after the Brexit grace period comes to an end, the company has warned.

M&S chairman Archie Norman said customers in NI will face higher prices and product shortages due to extra border checks coming into force in October.

In a letter to Brexit minister David Frost Norman warned current EU customs arrangements were “totally unsuited and were never designed for a modern fresh food supply chain between closely intertwined trading partners”.

"There is no other outcome for consumers in Northern Ireland in the end other than higher prices, given the inflationary pressures being put on to retailers by the regulatory regime," Norman wrote.

"Being able to keep the show on the road, let alone growing, is going to be very challenging," he continued.

He said M&S was already no longer able to ship many products into the Republic of Ireland from Great Britain as a result of the Brexit agreements, and he warned of the similar supply disruption to NI should further customs checks be introduced. 

NI effectively remains inside the EU’s single market for goods in order to avoid a hard border on the island.

As it stands, goods entering NI from Britain only face light-touch checks under the current grace period. However, this comes to an end at the end of September, which will impact the checks required on goods entering the region. 

Norman warned this will lead to shortages and claimed M&S had already made the decision to halt certain products being delivered to NI. 

“This Christmas, I can tell you already, we’re having to make decisions to delist products for Northern Ireland because it’s simply not worth the risk of trying to get it through,” Norman told BBC’s Radio Four.

“We’ve already made that decision. We’re waiting to see how serious it’s going to be but if it’s anything like southern Ireland [the Republic of Ireland], and at the moment it’s set to be, then it’s going to be very, very serious for customers.

“It risks being incendiary for the public in Northern Ireland because you can’t think of a more visible demonstration of how you’re no longer a full part of the United Kingdom than [when] you can’t get your favourite Christmas products, you can’t buy M&S chicken, free-range eggs, sandwiches.”

Norman compared the issues the company has faced to “Kafkaesque bureaucracy”. 

M&S currently completes 40,000 pages of customs documents a week to get products into NI, which will increase to 120,000 when the full rules for NI start at the end of the grace period.

A single error on a form or even the incorrect pen ink can lead to trucks holding 650 items being denied entry, he claimed.

“I really, really worry about the visibility of this because everyone in Northern Ireland is going to see, very, very visibly, the impact of Brexit and the protocol because there will be gaps on the shelves,” he said.

Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s previously wrote to Lord Foster to warn of the disruption to trade and supply chains to NI following the grace period if action is not taken to smooth the transition, which could force many retailers to move supply chains from GB to the EU.

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