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Belfast city centre trade is positive despite 'tough' climate

By John Mulgrew

Belfast city centre retail is in a "positive" place with low vacancy rates - but the high street remains "extremely tough" for shopping, it has been claimed.

Donegall Place is Belfast's central shopping area, with many big-name retailers including Boots and Marks and Spencer.

Colin Mathewson, senior director with CBRE, said: "The city centre story is very positive at the moment and clearly Donegall Place has very little vacancy with a number of outstanding requirements from retailers looking for suitable units.

"In general terms the prime retail core has seen a lot of positive activity over the last 12 months with vacancy levels much reduced."

New arrivals on or off Donegall Place include Sports Direct, Stradivarius and Moss Bros.

A number of other major stores have also opened in the last two years, including an extended Zara, Skechers and Gap.

But retail analyst Donald McFetridge says "conditions are still extremely tough".

In nearby Castle Place, a number of units remain empty, including the former BHS store and Mothercare.

Mr Mathewson said: "Mothercare recently closed and we are marketing this, with interest already registered from a number of parties."

According to the latest figures, March was the third consecutive month of declining footfall here.

Andrew Webb, chairman of Belfast City Centre Management, said the area has had "significant investment in the street scape in recent years" and was a "far cry from 2008 when it faced the opening of Victoria Square, the recession and online retailing".

"Since then vacancies have fallen and it appears to be thriving," he said.

But Mr McFetridge said: "The uncertainty about Brexit looms large in the mindset of many retailers and, specifically, the uncertainty about the arrangements for local government also have a great bearing on how consumers spend."

Meanwhile, Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "The general feedback on trade from our members was positive over Easter.

"The better weather and extended holiday was certainly a factor in improved sales."

While there was an overall decrease of 0.2% in footfall between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, according to Springboard, there was an increase of 6.6% for leisure activity after 5pm.

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