THE £145m High Street voucher scheme "served its purpose" in helping bricks-and-mortar businesses in the north recover from the disruption to trade caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But it didn't go the entire way to ensuring retailers enjoyed their usual golden quarter, where they made sales that shored them up for the tougher months of less spend in January, February and March, according to NI Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly.
And it comes as new figures reveal that shopper footfall in the north was actually down in December when compared to November, when most of the spending vouchers were being used by the 1.4 million recipients.
The NIRC-Sensormatic IQ data showed that Northern Ireland led the UK footfall fightback for the third month in a row, with shop visits almost eight percentage points higher than the UK average.
But while Belfast in December was 15 and 20 points respectively better than Cardiff and Glasgow, the figures weren't as strong as the previous month.
“Our continued footfall recovery is down in no small part to the High Street card scheme, something retailers in Scotland and Wales are keen to replicate given the scheme’s success here,” Mr Connolly said.
“But we must be realistic as to the challenges facing our industry in the next few months.
“We haven't had our usual golden quarter which sustains retailers for the first three months of the year, and there will not be much further spend emanating from the high street voucher scheme, so that boost will be missing.
“The uncertainty with the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations also continues to be a concern across the supply chain.
“Our biggest concern is the safety of our staff and customers as Covid cases continue to spiral.
“Staff absences also continue to rise in line with rising Covid cases, though the situation remains manageable.
“Retailers are monitoring the situation closely - but continued rising absence rates due to self-isolation will get increasingly difficult to sustain.
“The retail industry will play its part, but we need shoppers to support us by shopping safely, wearing a face covering, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing.”
The NIRC-Sensormatic IQ data showed that footfall in the north decreased by 10.8 per cent in December (Yo2Y), which was 5.6 percentage points lower than November but above the UK average decline of 18.6 per cent.
Shopping centre footfall dipped by 19.3 per cent in December (Yo2Y) in Northern Ireland, up from minus-21.1 per cent in November.
Andy Sumpter, retail consultant at Sensormatic Solutions, said: “Northern Ireland’s footfall remained relatively steady in December. Shopper counts were still a tenth down on pre-pandemic levels in the run up to retailers’ most important trading period, but the region fared much better than England, Wales, and Scotland, where footfall dropped to around a fifth down versus 2019.”