Retailers plead for reopening date as footfall languishes

HALCYON DAYS: It's more than a year since there's been scenes anything like this on the Northern Ireland high street. And as footfall plummets, the NIRC is pleading with the Executive to confirm a reopening date
Gary McDonald Business Editor

SHOPPER footfall in Northern Ireland "continued to be woeful last month" under the weight of the pandemic and the government's stay-at-home order and compulsory store closures, according to NI Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly.

But in the period covering February 28 to April 3, the region still saw the shallowest decline in footfall for the fourth consecutive month out of all UK regions.

Figures from NIRC and analysts Sensormatic IQ reveal that shopper numbers in the north decreased by 56.4 per cent in March compared with March 2019 (to make meaningful comparisons to changes, 2021 figures are now being compared with 2019 pre-pandemic numbers).

Shopping centre footfall declined by 72 per cent in March (Yo2Y), while the figure for Belfast was 56.6 per cent.

Mr Connolly said: “Visits to our retail destinations languished over half lower than they would traditionally at this time of year, unsurprising given shoppers were only able to access a limited range of so-called essential stores. All retail destinations suffered, most notably city centres and shopping malls.

“Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK that doesn't have a firm date for the full reopening of retail and it is something that our members are clamouring for.

“Reopening is just the first step though. Shops will be unable to trade at capacity due to physical distancing, and the broader ecosystem upon which much of retail depends – such as hospitality and eating out – is unlikely to have fully re-opened.

“The high street is not properly open until it is all open. We have always said it is not what you sell but whether you can sell it safely.”

He added: “Northern Ireland's shops and the 100,000 jobs they provide directly – with many more in the supply chain - will only survive with the patronage of the public.

“Swathes of the industry remains in crisis, and questions remain over what demand will look like for the remainder of the year. If we don't have dates for reopening soon and a properly funded recovery, our high streets could look significantly different.”

Andy Sumpter from Sensormatic Solutions, said: “We may have started to see the green shoots of retail's recovery beginning as we saw an incremental improvement in March footfall against February's shopper counts.

“But, the real test comes when retail is able to fully reopen and irreversible after this last year of yo-yoing in and out of lockdown.”

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