Shoppers drift back - but 'no cause for celebration' says retail chief

Footfall in the north rose in February after eight months of decline
Gary McDonald Business Editor

CUSTOMERS drifted back into Northern Ireland's high streets and retail parks last month as overall shopper footfall rose for the first time in eight months, albeit minimally (and not at all in shopping centres).

But the uplift belies a growing malaise in the retail sector, where the vacancy rate continues to be the highest in the UK by a considerable margin.

New figures from industry analysts Springboard show footfall in Northern Ireland grew by 0.3 per cent, which is above the UK average of minus-0.5 per cent and significantly better than the three- and 12-month regional averages of minus -1.7 per cent and minus-2.3 per cent respectively.

The north's high street and retail parks both saw growth of 1.9 per cent in the four-week period, though shopping centres' footfall continued to decline (down 4.1 per cent).

Aodhan Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said that while the rise is welcome, ending eight months of decline, it is "definitely not a cause for celebration".

He added: “The retail industry already faces its own structural challenges, with margins shrinking, and costs growing due to a lack of decisions in public policy. Our archaic rates system is not fit for purpose with retail being only 12 per cent of the economy but paying 23 per cent of business rates.

"The option in the Department of Finance's Budgetary Outlook to raise business rates yet further will simply pile on the pressure and could lead to shop closures and job losses.

"Similarly, if no decisions are taken to reform the apprenticeship levy in Northern Ireland, then employers of scale will not be able to access the funds that they have been paying in for a year, with the levy becoming yet another tax on employment."

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