2016 a bumper year for new shops in Belfast but still 'room for more'
Northern Ireland saw a flood of brands setting up shop here in 2016, but there is "still plenty of room" for "golden opportunities" and further new retailers in 2017, it's been claimed.
The region saw a raft of food stores and clothing brands opening up in the province for the first time, including low-cost pie firm Greggs and cake shop Patisserie Valerie.
Along with lifestyle retailer Oliver Bonas, they were marking their first footprint on the island of Ireland by opening in Northern Ireland.
Other fashion openings included Stradivarius, a sister company of high street leader Zara, and menswear specialist Moss Bros.
Retail analyst Donald McFetridge said 2016 saw the arrival of a "plethora of new retailers in the Northern Ireland marketplace, in both the food and non-food sectors".
And he continued that while both food and fashion brands have expanded here, Northern Ireland has been "15 years behind its counterparts" elsewhere in the UK.
"There was, however, a pronounced interest in the food sector, with new arrivals lining up to enter that very lucrative market. In spite of that, there is still plenty of room for new operators to set up shop here in 2017, and I personally have been talking to a number of retailers who are very interested in coming here," he said.
He referred to a report, by consultants Javelin, for Belfast City Council in September last year, which said the city was behind in its provision of luxury brands.
"A recent report on retail provision in Belfast has indicated that we still have a long way to go before we catch up with Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds and some of the other principal cities in the rest of the UK. I believe that Northern Ireland's consumers are well-provided for in the food sector, but there is also still room for a premium operator like Waitrose at the top end of the market."
As for restaurants, UK Italian chain Zizzi and Eddie Rockets were among those added to the food scene here this year.
"For years now, I have been pointing out that we are still 15 years behind our counterparts in the UK in terms of truly high-end retailing provision," Mr McFetridge said.
"There are, therefore, golden opportunities here for premium retailers at the luxury end of the market to develop store operations in this region. For example, Louis Vuitton, Mulberry and other luxury brands could all do very well in Northern Ireland.
"In fact, their absence results in retail leakage to other cities like Dublin and London where consumers go to spend their money in search of these, and similar, brands."
Other stores opening their first NI locations last year included Go Outdoors and toy shop The Entertainer.
"There is also clear evidence that there is relative under-provision in womenswear, menswear, footwear and jewellery," Mr McFetridge stated. "In addition to this, leisure goods, household, electrical and furniture are also under-provided for in the region, which is why we need a John Lewis department store. Therefore, in spite of an influx of new retailers, there is still room for further development in certain sectors.
"The list of new entrants for 2016 is heavy with food/restaurant chains but there is still room for chains like Jamie's Italian and Carluccio's as consumers are becoming much more 'experience-led', and they are also looking for new and fresh dining opportunities.
"As we enter 2017, there are still worries about the possible effect of Brexit, but there are also plenty of opportunities out there for new investors with a keen eye to the future."