Better start to the year, but retail footfall still well below pre-pandemic levels

New data published by the NI Retail Consortium showed footfall in Belfast during January was 10 per cent up on the same month last year. Picture by Hugh Russell.

THE north’s shopping hubs started 2023 in a much stronger fashion than 2022, but new footfall analysis shows activity is still well down on pre-pandemic levels.

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium’s (NIRC) monthly footfall monitor found shopper numbers across the north during January were 9.1 per cent higher than January 2022.

But footfall was still 8.3 per cent lower than January 2019.

Nonetheless, the new director of the NIRC, Neil Johnston, said the year-on-year increase in shopper activity was “positive news” for retailers at the beginning of the new year.

“That said, the comparable month last year was somewhat weak given concerns about the prevalence of Omicron and the unwinding of the high street voucher scheme.”

Belfast outperformed the Northern Ireland average, with January footfall 10 per cent up year-on-year and 1.1 percentage points better than December 2022.

Activity in Belfast has been boosted by the opening of the new Ulster University campus in September 2022, which has brought thousands of students into the city centre.

But Neil Johnston said the ongoing cost-of-living squeeze could bear down on discretionary spending in the months ahead.

“Shop price inflation remains elevated and household finances are likely to be strained further by energy bills, mortgage rates, possible hikes in domestic rates, and the freeze in income tax thresholds.”

He said while retailers are striving to offer value where they can, the weight of costs bearing down on the sector and its supply chain is proving difficult to absorb.

“In England, Scotland and Wales the respective administrations have decided to freeze business rates for the coming year.

“Here, unfortunately we have no decision and indeed there is, unbelievably, talk of a significant rise. “Such a move would inevitably add to pressure on prices – and potentially footfall - which is the last thing consumers and retailers need. We urge the Secretary of State to freeze business rates.”