Business

Double whammy for high street as more shops shut and consumer numbers fall

Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE north's beleaguered high streets are taking another hammering as more retail outlets close - and less shoppers frequent those that do remain open.

Figures out this morning from monitoring firm Springboard reveal that footfall figures (that's the number of people going into shops to spend money) fell by 5.9 per cent in Northern Ireland last month compared with April last year.

And with nearly one in shops (16.1 per cent) lying empty, it makes the north's retail sector one of the most disadvantaged of any UK region.

It comes despite pledges by practically all of the political parties ahead of the Assembly elections to do more to help the economy, and newly-elected MLAs will now come under pressure to act on those promises.

The shock findings also reveal that the night-time shopping economy is almost non-existent.

Diane Wehrle, director of marketing and insights at Springboard, said: “April's footfall figures certainly echo the high street decline seen over recent months, which can be attributable to the poor weather for this time of year, but with digital sales and retail parks also slowing down it signifies something more at play.

"The rise in unemployment and economic uncertainty in this pre EU referendum period has undoubtedly adversely impacted consumer activity.

"We know that cuts in retail spending are the first line of defence against threats to household budgets when consumer confidence is knocked."

She added: “Footfall performance in Northern Ireland was more disheartening than across the UK, with a seven per cent drop in high streets and 2.8 per cent decline in shopping centres.

"However, footfall in Northern Ireland is notoriously volatile and a sharp decrease such as this, which followed reasonable results in March, is not unusual. This volatility is undoubtedly a key factor in the persistently high vacancy rate which rose once again to 16.1 per cent from 14.7 per cent in January.

“Footfall during standard daytime trading hours – driven by retail spending – is far greater than in other parts of the day.

"This dropped by a greater degree than in other parts of the day, but there was no offsetting effect of uplifts during the social period of 5pm to 8pm, or during night time hours as there have been in previous months.

"This highlights the need for retail destinations to broaden their offer to embrace new and exciting retail formats that drive activity, but also to have an offer that captures the increasing consumer demand for hospitality and food and beverage.”

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the findings were a stark reminder of the volatility in the retail market but insisted retailers were increasingly adept at harnessing the internet and multi-channel innovations to get through to consumers who might not have time to travel to the shops.

"However, with one in every six stores empty in Northern Ireland this is frankly not acceptable. This is a time of significant tumult for the retail industry and shoppers undoubtedly remain cautious and what is clear is that the retail industry requires more certainty from the Programme for Government which is being negotiated at the moment.

“There must be clear, bold and effective decisions made to support an industry which employs over 70,000 directly and more through the supply chain.

"The new Executive must recognise the cumulative burden faced by retailers in areas as diverse as business rates, the national living wage and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. Policy makers must support retailers to allow us to continue to invest and play our part in a strong recovery here in Northern Ireland.”

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