Shop vacancy rate gap closes, but April footfall slumps says report

The rate of shop vacancies in Northern Ireland fell back slightly in April according to new figures
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland has stayed firmly rooted to the bottom of the UK's league table of shopper footfall after consumers stayed away from high streets, retail parks and shopping centres last month.

The slump of 7.3 per cent (from 1.8 per cent the month before) was the poorest performance in two and a half years, according to new figures, although some of the drop is being linked to the dismal weather and timing of the Easter holidays, as well as the continued shift to online shopping.

But by contrast, the shop vacancy rate, at 14.2 per cent, has fallen slightly, and the gap has been closed to just 5 per cent behind the UK average (at one stage more than one in five shops in the north were boarded up).

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), which compiles the figures alongside Springboard, said: “Over the past few years we've seen our vacancy rate steadily drop from 20 per cent of shops to 14.2 per cent, the second best quarterly performance in six years.

"And although we have still the highest empty shop rate across the UK, the improvement is tangible. But much more needs to be done to ensure our high streets not only survive but thrive.

"It is simply no longer tenable for retail to account for 12 per cent of the economy but stump up 23 per cent of business rates. Our outdated rates system is no longer fit for purpose.

"Furthermore, Northern Ireland needs to speed up improvements that support retail as a core part of our economy. We risk falling behind if we do not have dedicated lead officials for retail within government as they do in other regions, and we desperately need a retail strategy like the one currently being developed in Scotland."

He added: “A healthy retail industry is important for the 80,000 people directly employed in the sector, for the other industries it touches and its supply chain, as well as for the hard-pressed Northern Ireland consumer.”

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, added: "A 7.3 per cent drop in April, following on from the 1.8 per cent dip in March meant an overall 4.3 per cent decline over the two months in Northern Ireland, which is a little more modest than the 4.8 per cent drop across the UK, which was the worst March/April result since the depths of recession in 2009.

"Hospitality outlets lost proportionately less footfall than bricks and mortar destinations generally, so it's clear that retail trading is doubly challenged by a thrifty consumer in concert with a continuing predisposition towards leisure rather than retail spend."

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