It’s a blue retail January as shoppers run for cover

Footfall in Belfast city centre continued to dwindle last month. Picture Mark Marlow
Footfall in Belfast city centre continued to dwindle in January, according to NIRC figures. Picture: Mark Marlow

RETAIL bosses say they hope an incoming Stormont Executive and Assembly will hit the ground running and “inject positive sentiment” into the economy.

It comes after a decidedly blue January for shops and high streets, with footfall figures across the north down by nearly 7% - more than twice the UK average.

And it has prompted the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) to seek an early intervention with a hopefully-restored administration to seek a freezing of the regional rate come April.

Neil Johnston was speaking as overall Northern Ireland footfall decreased by 6.8% in January, which was worse than the 4.7% decline in December and which compared to a year-on-year UK decrease of 2.8%.

Footfall in Belfast dipped by 5.3% year on year - again worse than the 3.6% fall in December - as new year shoppers stayed at home.

But there was better news for shopping centres, which saw their footfall rise by 1.4% over the month, with consumers opting to go under cover in a month marked by sub-zero temperatures and two named storms.

Mr Johnston added: “Footfall across the UK remains disappointing, with figures for January being only slightly less worse than for December, while here we saw a further slippage on the month with a near 7% annual drop.

“Compared to January last year, footfall is down across the UK as a whole, but more so in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.

“We can but hope that the return of a functioning Executive will inject some positive sentiment into the economy and perhaps give more confidence to consumers.”

He added: “An incoming Executive will come under pressure to deal first and foremost with the on-going public sector pay dispute and strikes, but NIRC members will also be looking to a quick decision on business rates.

“Retailers in England, Scotland and Wales are facing very unhelpful rates hikes of between 5 to 7% in April, we hope that given retailers in Northern Ireland already face the highest rates bills in the UK that the Executive will act quickly to announce the continued freezing of the regional rate.”

NIRC director Neil Johnston.
NIRC director Neil Johnston. NIRC director Neil Johnston.

Andy Sumpter, retail consultant at Sensormatic Solutions, which helps compile the figures, said: “With disruption from two named storms in January dampening footfall on the high street, retailers also faced tempestuous trading conditions caused by the ongoing cost-of-living spending squeeze and stubbornly sticky inflation.

“This will come as a further blow to retailers who already faced a tough December and Golden Quarter period, dashing hopes that the new year might signal the beginning of a bounce back.

“Many will now be hoping as inflation continues to slow, consumer confidence will start to rise enough to loosen the squeeze on incomes to the point that this begins to materially translate into both footfall and sales.”