Northern Ireland's high street footfall bounces back from Christmas slump
Northern Ireland's high street retailers are off to a strong start to the year, with shopper numbers on the up after businesses suffered a major slump in the run-up to Christmas.
Footfall figures increased 2.6% in January compared to the same period a year earlier, and shot up faster than the overall UK average in the best performance shops here have had since October.
Overall numbers increased by 1.7%, but Northern Ireland's shopping centres fared less well, with footfall down 0.9%.
But it was still a marked improvement over a 1.1% drop in December, according to figures from the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC).
Aodhan Connolly, director of the NIRC, said: "(It has been an) encouraging January for retail as shopper footfall rose to its best performance since last October and vacancy rates across Northern Ireland continue to fall, recording the lowest shop vacancy rate since January 2012.
"Our members are hopeful that this positive start to 2016 will be built upon by consumers continuing to spend their hard-earned money on our high-streets and retailers continuing to invest in our economy.
"However, for retailers who employ over 70,000 people in Northern Ireland to be allowed to create jobs and grow our supply chain, we need government to work in tandem with us."
Michelle Greeves, centre manager at Victoria Square, added the business "had a very positive start to 2016 with sales up 5% on 2015".
The strong post-Christmas trade has also been experienced by Suitor Menswear in Belfast.
Tom Suitor, who founded the business back in 1992, said sales were up on January 2015. "Post-Christmas we are up on last year in this shop on Rosemary Street, and we were about level in Law Suit (on Upper Arthur Street)," he added.
The business is in the middle of a big revamp, moving to one premises and amalgamating both shops.
"We want one big store. Our trade has changed here, with our made-to-measure business improving," Mr Suitor said. "Overall, it has been a very good year, and we can't complain."
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said: "In contrast to the UK where footfall increased in all types of retail destinations, in Northern Ireland footfall in shopping centres declined by 0.9% , although the increase of 2.6% in high streets was the best since October 2015.
"Tracking footfall since 2009 has shown that it is the post 5pm period that has been most resilient, with improvements in daytime footfall following an increase in activity in the evening."
But Mr Connolly countered that the ongoing review of business rates "needs to realise the unbalanced burden on retailers and provide fairness and equity".
"Government must also be aware of the growing cumulative burden of issues as diverse as the national living wage," he added.
The number of shops lying empty also dropped here, falling to 14.7%, down from 16.3%.