Belfast Telegraph

Business Soapbox: Martin Walsh

The manager of Rushmere Shopping Centre believes that while retail health has been relatively steady so far, consumer confidence is still fragile and it is businesses which achieve the correct focus on their product that will survive

Retail health within the past month has been steady, with the discount segment leading the way as earlier summer-sale launches boost transactions across the retail sector. The early summer sales also helped clear build-ups of high season summer stock which had been slow moving due to the poor weather we experienced at the start of the season. However, this is not a like-for-like comparison and some retailers may find it challenging when they come up against last year's summer sales figures.

Essentially footfall numbers are down slightly year-on-year across the retail sector in Northern Ireland as a whole.

At Rushmere I find that the impact of increased motoring costs have marginally impacted footfall figures. However our 1,800 free car-parking spaces do provide a crucial saving to the hard-pressed motorist and footfall at the centre has proven relatively robust.

I have also found that conversion rates and ATVs (average transaction values) are very healthy and are helping stores deliver year-on-year increases. Importantly, several retailers in Rushmere are reporting sales performances well ahead of their respective regional averages.

The increases in VAT and the price of raw materials such as cotton have resulted in several retailers relying on deals and offers to encourage customers to spend. Retailers in Rushmere are reporting that value is still king at present, with discerning shoppers looking for a combination of good quality and keen prices.

A lot of sales in our fashion stores are driven by core product and key volume lines, with the higher-end fashion sector finding it more challenging.

As the housing market continues to slow, home improvement stores such as Homebase continue to trade well. Back-to-school ranges have also traded exceptionally strongly since their launch at the start of the month which bodes well for the remaining six weeks of this season.

Many retailers across the board are finding the current economic conditions challenging and are having to work harder to deliver growth. Overall, I've found that the most robust stores have been those that focus on their offer - the right product at the right price in the right place; and also those who place emphasis on exceptional customer care.

We are certainly starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

However, it is my belief that we should proceed with caution. Consumer confidence is currently very fragile and the next few months will be a challenging time.