LONDON (FNS) -- J. Sainsbury here said it plans to invest $160 million (100 million pounds) to open seven supermarkets in Northern Ireland.
Sainsbury's announcement is expected to spur its British competitors into attacking the Northern Ireland market, which is worth about $2.24 billion to $2.72 billion (1.4 billion to 1.7 billion pounds) a year. Both Tesco and Argyll, owner of Safeway, are known to be looking for sites in the region.
According to U.K. analysts, the market is less sophisticated than Britain's and generally has higher prices. It is currently dominated by three local chains -- Wellworths, owned by Fitzwilton; and Stewarts and the discount chain Crazy Prices, which are both owned by Associated British Foods.
Sainsbury's sees the potential in the near term to open up to 12 stores in the region, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
David Sainsbury, chairman, said the Northern Ireland stores also could serve as a springboard for the group to expand into the Republic of Ireland.
The company has filed outline planning applications with the U.K. Department of Environment for stores in Londonderry and Sprucefield, and has made detailed planning applications for sites in Coleraine and Newtownbreda in South Belfast. It also is at an advanced stage of discussions for sites in Tillysburn and Ballymena as well as another site in the south of the country.