No sign of Brexit backlash as Northern Ireland retail sector builds

Declan Flynn

AS the latest ONS statistics for UK retail sales hit the press, it seems fears of a significant downturn in the UK retail sector, like many post-EU vote predictions, were unfounded as the sector has retained a significant proportion of its healthy glow as we approach the end of quarter three.

But not everyone thinks the glow will be just as bright as we approach year-end. In mainland UK there is a scepticism about forecasts based on the most recent figures from ONS, as surveys from the British Retail Consortium, BDO and Visa all pointed to a much bigger fall in sales volumes.

Indeed, some are predicting that the chances of a negative revision of the data seem high and there are headwinds coming, in the form of slower growth in employment and real earnings, that will paint a different picture come January 2017.

So what of Northern Ireland's retail sector? Geography may prove to be the saving grace for retailers over coming months as the land border we maintain with Europe offers some shelter from the predicted headwinds.

Unlike mainland UK, many of Northern Ireland's key indicators spell a cautiously optimistic outlook. A good example of this is the lowest unemployment rate in Northern Ireland since 2009, an indicator that serves to back-up the conclusion that there is a steadily growing economic vibrancy amongst the Northern Ireland populous that retailers will do their best to take advantage of.

And it's not just statistics that are providing this optimistic tone in the local retail sector. The actions, namely those of retailers, are speaking louder than words. The sector continues to expand, with several high-profile high-street names coming to the province in recent months including Greggs, Stradivarius, Moss Bros and Patisserie Valerie, all new arrivals to our shores.

Along with these new entrants, existing retailers are improving and expanding, both in Belfast and in the regions.

Starbucks' announcement of its upcoming ‘Drive Through' coffee shop at Connswater in east Belfast is a first for the province and will surely be welcomed by shoppers and passing commuters alike.

Shoppers from the south are reportedly flocking to Newry as the pound falls against the euro resulting in a post-Brexit boost for the border city. The Influx of shoppers coming north has been described as ‘huge' with the majority claiming they feel that there is better value north of the border.

While this is welcomed by the border areas it remains to be seen if southern visitors will venture further into Northern Ireland to sample the shopping in the capital and other cities. The potential of increasing southern footfall in Belfast will do nothing but good for the argument to move forwards with key city development schemes such as Royal Exchange and the regeneration of the site that previously housed BHS on Castle Lane.

The city is already gearing up to meet the needs of shopping tourists from mainland UK and Europe who wish to stay in the city, with several high-profile hotel developments under way or about to commence. We can only hope that with rebased rents and rates in prime retail areas of Belfast city centre that occupancy levels will return to normal and new development may be needed to satisfy the demands from new entrants.

:: Declan Flynn is managing director of Belfast-based commercial property agency Lisney, which works on behalf of many of Northern Ireland's most significant investors and developers as well as major retailers and businesses

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