Northern Ireland's shop vacancy rate on rise as one in six retail properties now lie empty
Northern Ireland's shop vacancy rate has risen to 16.4% with a growing gap between the fortunes of high streets in Great Britain.
But footfall - the number of people shopping across Northern Ireland - saw a small rise, contrasted with a drop in the UK average.
Four regions reported footfall above the UK average, with the East of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Greater London all reporting positive footfall growth.
But between February and April, the town centre vacancy rate in Northern Ireland had a slight increase from 16.3% to 16.4%, well above the national average of 10.2%.
However, the number of people shopping in Northern Ireland continued to rise, with the footfall figures increasing by 1.2%.
The province bucked the national trend, with the UK average falling 0.8% in April, according to Springboard.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), said the figures were mixed.
"Footfall in Northern Ireland's shopping destinations has sprouted for a third successive month," Mr Connolly said.
"Indeed shopper footfall has shown positive growth in Northern Ireland for eight of the last 12 months, outshining the rest of the UK, and at a time when the popularity of online retailing has never been greater.
"Less encouraging, though, is the very slight rise in the shop vacancy rate in our town centres."
He added that one in six retail properties now lay empty in the province.
"Vacancies had been falling quite consistently over these past two years but, with one in every six retail premises empty, the vacancy rate in Northern Ireland now lies 6.2% above that of the UK as a whole."
Mr Connolly has called on the Executive to do more to address the problem.
"The NIRC wants to see further momentum injected into the Government's town centres agenda, with improved accessibility, more affordable parking, and action to address the bugbear of the cost and ease of doing business."
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said it is a worrying trend for Northern Ireland that vacancy rates are rising.
"The major downside for Northern Ireland is that, in contrast to the UK, the vacancy rate rose slightly over the period since January.
"At 16.4%, Northern Ireland's vacancy rate continues to be the highest of any part of the UK and significantly higher than the national average of 10.2%."
Ms Wehrle said the vacancy increase could be down to expiring leases.
"The continuing high level of vacant units across Northern Ireland's town centres is likely to be due at least in part to the adverse impact of the increasing number of retail leases that are expiring, offering retailers an opportunity to vacate units that are no longer in viable trading locations."
The vacancy rate could show that Northern Ireland's retail market is in for a period of sustained decline, Ms Wehrle said.
"The fact that this has impacted on Northern Ireland's towns to a greater degree than the UK as a whole, despite the growth of omni-channel shopping behaviour, suggests a more challenging trading period ahead."