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Christmas shopper numbers plunge in Northern Ireland's high streets and retail parks

Shoppers were out in fewer numbers in Northern Ireland over December according to Springboard
Gary McDonald Business Editor

HUNDREDS of bricks-and-mortar retailers in the north are thought to be in financial distress at the start of this year as profound changes in people's shopping habits impact on their businesses.

And the weeks leading up to Christmas, which are traditionally the most lucrative for high street retailers, have offered little solace, according to new figures from shop-watcher Springboard

In the five weeks from November 26 to December 30, footfall declined by 3.1 per cent (the previous month it was down 2.4 per cent), with the woe spread across the high street, retail parks and shopping centres.

And although this is not quite as bad as the UK as a whole, where the drop was 3.5 per cent, it means shops in Northern Ireland have endured seven months of consecutive decline.

It comes as major retailers like Toys R Us face administration and other big names like House of Fraser, M&S and Debenhams struggle.

Indeed it follows a recent survey by the insolvency advisory company Begbies Traynor which revealed that nearly 45,000 retailers in the UK are facing “significant financial distress”.

The poor footfall figures underline just how unspectacular the festive trading period was in Belfast, Derry and other towns and cities across the north.

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly said: “The decline in shopper footfall is at its fastest pace in almost five years and in part reflects the profound structural challenges facing the retail industry as shopping habits continue to evolve.

"While Northern Ireland did not fare as poorly as other parts of the UK, the 3.1 per cent drop in December footfall means we have now witnessed seven months of consecutive decline, with the figures indicative of how challenging and uncertain 2017 has been for both the retail industry and for consumers.

He said the continued political instability, the enormity of Brexit unfolding, disposable incomes being squeezed, and ongoing profound changes in the way people shop have all added to the uncertainty.

“If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that change and uncertainty may be the only certainty for 2018," Mr Connolly said.

"We know too that retailers are resilient and adaptable. The restoration of devolved government at Stormont would provide a welcome confidence boost, allowing the concerns of Northern Ireland business and consumers to be championed by a working Assembly and Executive.”

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, which compiles the monthly statistics, said the drop in December shopper numbers in Northern Ireland came as no surprise given recent trends.

She added: "Moving into 2018, it is apparent that retailers need to focus on giving the customer an improved in-store experience, whilst holding their nerve and resisting discounting too early and so protecting margin."

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