Fresh calls for 'retail strategy' as Northern Ireland footfall dips again
LATEST footfall figures have brought little solace to the north's hard-pressed retail sector amid a period of extreme turmoil on the high street, with multiple retailers having gone bust or announced store closure plans - most recently House of Fraser on Friday.
Footfall fell by 0.3 per cent in Northern Ireland in July, ending two months of growth, according to the latest monitor from the NI Retail Consortium and Springboard.
And the head of the NI Retail Consortium has demanded more government support to effect retail reinvention and prevent retail Armageddon, notably creating lead official on retail and a Northern Ireland retail strategy.
Footfall grew on the high street and retail parks (1.4 per cent), albeit at a slower rate than enjoyed in May and June where they had grown by 2.2 per cent and 6.2 per cent respectively, while it plunged by 5.5 per cent in shopping centres compared to a year ago.
Northern Ireland also remains the region with the highest shops vacancy rate for two years at 14.4 per cent, up from 14.2 per cent over the last quarter
NIRC director Aodhán Connolly said: “The slight fall in footfall is again better than the national average and can be taken as a reasonably good sign but what is more interesting is the slight shop vacancy rise of 0.2 per cent.
“This may appear to signal a stagnation in vacancy rate here but in reality, because of recent CVAs and shop closures across Northern Ireland, the retail landscape is in flux. Closures change the footfall dynamic for surrounding stores and while prominent units do replace tenants quickly, any further closures will again skew trading conditions and make conditions more challenging."
He added: “The retail industry is under considerable pressure. There are nearly 2,500 fewer retail stores in the UK than there were three years ago. Industry profitability is falling with net profit margins now 3 to 5 per cent of retail sales down from 6 to 8 per cent over the past decade.
"There needs to be an overhaul in our antiquated business rates system that is a disincentive to invest in Northern Ireland.
"Business rates are payable regardless of the profit a retail business may or may not be making. This is acting as a barrier for new entrants to the industry and is preventing the reinvention of high streets as more and more retailers reduce store portfolios.
“Our industry needs government support to effect retail reinvention and prevent retail Armageddon. We need forward thinking to make sure our consumers spend their time as well as their money in our towns and cities.
"If we don't have a lead official on retail and a Northern Ireland retail strategy, we will fall behind our neighbours to the south and east.”