Hope for the high street as vacancy rate slides
Shop vacancy rates in Belfast have declined from nearly 20% to 12.5%, according to a survey.
Property agents Lisney said the fall between 2014 and 2015 was the steepest in four years, and added the market for prime retail was also improving in towns.
The agency said the rates revaluation in April last year had prompted discounts in town centres, helping attract new retailers.
A spokesman added: "Occupational demand in Belfast city centre's prime retail area has experienced a notable increase in 2015, as improved consumer sentiment and the rates rebalancing took effect."
Prime retail areas around the province also saw a fall in vacancy rates from 17.1% to 14.6%, though Lisney predicted there would be "more sustained and steady improvement throughout 2016".
And taking into account investment and industrial property as well as retail, the agency forecast that around £200m worth of commercial property deals would be completed during the start of the year.
The volume of major property deals doubled last year, as sales cracked £420m, the report by Lisney showed.
"The number of transactions last year rose from 20 to 40," said Declan Flynn, managing director of Lisney Northern Ireland.
"The significance is the new entrants into the market, and that gives confidence to those investing.
"There will be about £200m during the first quarter of the year, which bodes well for 2016."
The sale of shopping centres and retail parks, including Ballymena's Fairhill and Bangor's Bloomfield, showed a move away from large portfolio sales as the commercial property market here began to normalise.
Two of the most prominent deals during the year were the purchases of Fairhill Shopping Centre in Ballymena by Rockspring, and of Erneside Shopping Centre in Enniskillen by Ellandi with Tristan Capital, for £45.6m and £34.5m respectively.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said the newest vacancy rates showed "significant progress".
But Mr Roberts added: "While this is good news, we still have a long way to go in addressing this problem."