Positive signs for north's retail sector as shopping centres report record 2018

Craigavon's Rushmere Shopping Centre has officially registered the festive trading period as the most successful in its 42-year history
Gareth McKeown

THE retail gloom appears to be lifting after two of the north's leading shopping centres reported record years.

Craigavon's Rushmere centre has officially registered the festive trading period as the most successful in its 42-year history, while Foyleside in Derry welcomed an unprecedented 2.26 million people in 2018.

Rushmere reported a surge in visitor numbers last month and during the peak Christmas week (December 22 to 29), with footfall up 8.1 per cent and 15.1 per cent respectively on 2017.

The picture in the last quarter of the year was equally rosy as shopper numbers increased by 13.6 per cent on the same period in 2017.

Early signs in 2019 are also promising at Rushmere, with a footfall uplift of 7.9 per cent registered on New Year's Day.

In spite of the challenging overall retail environment in the UK, Rushmere manager Martin Walsh is heartened by the "extremely positive" footfall at the centre.

"The final weekend before Christmas is always a bumper trading weekend and this year we enjoyed our busiest yet since we officially opened in 1976.

“Following a record 2018 and year-end, we’re confidently looking forward to 2019."

In addition to a record-breaking 2018 for visitors, heavily boosted by border traffic, between 60 and 70 new jobs were created at Foyleside through new outlets, which included Disney, Jack Wills and Holland & Barrett. As a result the centre is now fully occupied.

The publication of the latest figures come just a week after it was revealed that footfall in Belfast was up by almost 40 per cent in the last week of 2018.

The data from Belfast City Council shows that footfall for the week beginning December 24 was up 37.8 per cent on the same period in 2017, while across the north the footfall hike amounted to almost a quarter (22.1 per cent).

But, despite the relative positivity,Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey believes the UK retail sector faces another "challenging year".

"Time will tell if shoppers were out in force over the festive period. One thing is more certain – the shift to more sales taking place online continues, for department stores, clothing stores and household goods, pointing to another challenging year for some bricks and mortar retailers," he wrote in his online blog.

PR boss, Claire Aiken goes one further and warned that the high street needs to change dramatically in order to survive.

Writing in this week's Business Insight she said:

"2019 needs to see a dramatic shift in focus to a more ‘experiential’ activity so that high streets are offering more than just shopping."

Meanwhile Irish accounting and advisory firm RSM believes retailers must ensure their business model and culture is properly aligned with changing consumer preferences.

Speaking after the publication of an all-island survey of 2,000 people on consumer patterns, Áine Farrelly, management consulting partner, at RSM Ireland believes the strategy of retailers must change.

“The combination of increased rental pressures, growing competition, and changing spending patterns is already hitting the high street hard, with many retailers reporting under-performances at Christmas, and others disappearing altogether," she said.

"In retail, and in other sectors, we are advising companies to take a root and brand review of what their customers want, and to ensure that their business model is fully aligned with that."

RSM’s office managing partner in Belfast Richard Gardiner added:

"The high street is increasingly being seen as a ‘showroom’ where people expect experience-driven shopping.

"We are living in extraordinary times, and companies cannot operate as though it will be ‘business as usual’. Resilience can only be ensured by taking regular and careful reviews of how business strategy is aligned with the needs and demands of your customers.”

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