Sunderland's Sweet Home Alabama shuts up shop as competition from the big boys bites

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill
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An award-winning Sunderland businessman says he has been forced to close his business because he can no longer compete with national chains.

Specialist confectioner Sweet Home Alabama was named Small Business of the Year in the Sunderland Echo Portfolio Business Awards 2010.

Martin and Joan O'Neill with daughter Siobhan

Martin and Joan O'Neill with daughter Siobhan

But now Martin O'Neill says he he and wife Joan have had no choice but to wind up the family business.

The shop in Fawcett Street is now closed.

Martin has blamed a combination of increased competition and declining footfall in the city centre for the heart-breaking decision.

"I have had to declare bankruptcy - I just can't keep up with the big boys any longer," he said.

Sweet Home Alabama

Sweet Home Alabama

"The last three years have been exceptionally difficult. Business just fell off a cliff and and it has never come back.

"The shop has gone, but all the suppliers and all my staff are paid."

Public sector job cuts had had a devastating effect on footfall in the city centre, said Martin.

"You have lost 4,000 jobs from the council - that is 4,000 wages no longer coming into the city centre economy. The tax office has gone, the police station has gone, all these things have had an impact on trade."

Martin O'Neill with his Portfolio award

Martin O'Neill with his Portfolio award

Increased competition had also played a part: "People like Aldi and Lidl are impacting on the big supermarkets, so they have expanded their ranges, which is having a knock-on effect on others in turn.

"People used to come to us for all sorts of things - now they only come for rare things they can't get elsewhere."

The Fawcett Street end of the city centre had suffered in comparison to other areas, he said.

"We are in the Business Improvement area and I paid the subsidy until I could no longer afford to do so, but their programme certainly did nothing for Fawcett Street. Everything seemed to be geared towards Park Lane and The Bridges.

Sharon Appleby

Sharon Appleby

"A lot of my older customers have died off and they have never really been replaced by younger people coming in. Somebody said to me 'People have forgotten about you.'

"It is like a church. People like the idea of having a church there, but they might only use it once or twice a year."

Sharon Appleby, Head of Business Operations with Sunderland Business Improvement District (BID), said: "It's always very disappointing to hear about a business closing in the city
centre.

"The BID works to promote all areas of the city centre and to look at ways to drive people there through a whole host of initiatives.

"To be successful we need to work to our long-term vision to ensure lasting prosperity for the city centre as a whole, engaging with all of the businesses to achieve this."