Retailers still facing torrid time as shoppers stay away in January

Shopper numbers were down again in Northern Ireland in January according to a new report
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE challenges facing bricks and mortar retailing in Northern Ireland are continuing to mount, with the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK and customers still falling away.

And although the January data was a slight improvement on the trend of previous months, the figures contained in the latest it NI Retail Consortium-Springboard monitor still paint an ominous picture for retailers, especially as it came on the back of a torrid Christmas trading period.

The report reveals that the shop vacancy rate in the north fell to 14.3 per cent in January from 15.2 per cent in October, which is in line with the average over the past year of 14.5 per cent. But it remains the highest vacancy rate of all the regions (the UK average is 8.9 per cent).

And footfall fell by 2 per cent in January, the eighth consecutive month of decline, although this was less deep than the three-month and 12-month average of minus 2.6 per cent.

NIRC director Aodhán Connolly looked at the positives, and said: “While our vacancy rate is still the highest across the UK, this fall below 15 per cent does give a glimmer of hope to another set of unimpressive figures.

"The continued drop in shopper footfall brings us to eight consecutive months where we have not seen the number of people on our high streets, and in our retail parks and shopping centres rise."

He added: “Consumers are feeling the uncertainty along with businesses and the proposed cuts in the Department of Finance's budgetary outlook have done little to assuage concerns.

"The switching off of street lighting will simply make our high streets a less inviting place to go. Cuts to the infrastructure budget will mean that we will have a less effective transport system than our neighbours to the east or south.

"And proposed cuts to the skills budget means that Northern Ireland could slip behind the rest of the UK in training and therefore be less competitive globally when what we really need is a flexible skills fund like that in Scotland so that employers can get back some of the Apprenticeship Levy monies they fork out.

“Our approach to the devolved budget is simple: we need savings in areas of inefficiencies and duplication and investment in areas to make Northern Ireland fit for business in the 21st century.”

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said: “A drop in Northern Ireland's footfall of 2 per cent is an improvement on December's decline of 3.1 per cent but the worst result for January since 2015.

"High street footfall is more than 3 per cent adrift from the plus-2.4 per cent in January 2017 while shopping centre footfall continues to languish at minus 4.4 per cent following on from a drop of 3 per cent in January last year.

“In contrast activity in retail parks continues to grow, rising by 1.9 per cent across the UK last month, despite furniture and household appliance sales in January being the worst of all 13 categories.

"Retail parks clearly now fulfil a wider role for shoppers. Yes, they are convenient and functional shopping locations, but are buoyed by the continuing growth in online spending. Not only are they efficient click and collect points, but their attraction to shoppers is enhanced by a wider offer, embracing hospitality.

"And herein lies the lesson for stores in urban locations of high streets and shopping centres; their longevity is contingent upon their ability to embrace all steps of consumers' path to purchase, which implicitly encompasses a first class click and collect experience."

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