SHOPPER numbers on the high streets and shopping centres across the north improved again in March - and retailers say they expect a further bounce in April given the Easter bank holidays.
But overall shopper foot-traffic remains well down on pre-pandemic levels, and one retail chief says “there is some way to go before we see sustained recovery”.
Figures from the NI Retail Consortium and Sensormatic IQ covering the five weeks from February 26 to April 1 show that overall footfall in the north was up by 7 per cent year on year.
This was 5.7 percentage points weaker than February but better than the UK average increase of 6.8 per cent.
Shopping centre footfall increased by 7.8 per cent, a decline on the increase of 16.4 per cent in February, while the number for Belfast city was up 4.5 per cent - some 8.2 percentage points weaker than the previous period.
But compared to pre-pandemic 2019 levels, total Northern Ireland footfall was 10.4 per cent lower, shopping centres down 10.3 per cent and Belfast down 12.7 per cent.
NI Retail Consortium director Neil Johnston said: “These increases are encouraging and better than in England, but are perhaps also indicative of the challenging situation that consumers find themselves in.
“This is slower growth compared to February’s figures, and overall shopper foot-traffic remains well down on pre-pandemic levels, indicating there is some way to go before we see sustained recovery.
“Consumers face economic uncertainty about inflation, especially with regard to energy and, therefore, they are being cautious. In addition, in Northern Ireland, despite the progress made with the Windsor Framework we still have no sitting Executive.
“This political uncertainty means that there is no means to settle public sector disputes or to make the tough decisions that will be required to sort out the public finances.
“This is not the kind of backdrop to inspire consumer confidence. The retail industry, the entire economy and indeed the people of Northern Ireland deserve better.”
He added: “The retail industry continues to focus on its role – to deliver choice and value to consumers. We hope that in the coming months those in elected office will be able to focus on delivery too.
“There is much needing to be done – including reform of the business rates system and the regeneration of our high streets. Retailing remains a vibrant sector and with the Easter period, and upcoming bank holidays, retailers will be hoping that April footfall will put a spring in the sector’s step.”
Andy Sumpter, retail consultant at Sensormatic Solutions, said: “Shopper traffic counts in March saw an improvement on last year, which is no small feat given the backdrop of ongoing cost-of-living pressures, stubbornly high inflation and strike disruptions continuing to simmer away.
“Retail parks remained the outlier, with a slightly more suppressed recovery due to their tenant mix of predominantly furniture, kitchen and bed retail outlets, as shoppers expressed spending caution and held off purchasing big ticket items.
“While the retail footfall recovery slowed marginally last month compared to pre-pandemic levels, we continue to see shopper numbers continue to normalise and the ebbs and flows in performance are becoming less pronounced.
“We also see, perhaps as a consequence of hybrid working becoming the norm, the significance of the weekend rising, leaving Friday and Monday trailing behind.”