Retailers in Northern Ireland are facing a looming crisis as shoppers desert the high street in their droves in the run-up to Christmas, a new report has indicated.
In October, shopper numbers here were a shocking 9.8% lower than a year ago – a figure more than three times worse than the UK's national average.
The unexpected nosedive in footfall is also three times worse than September's 3.1% year-on-year decline in Northern Ireland itself.
And it is the third month in a row that local footfall has plummeted here.
Adding to the problem is a rise in shop vacancy rates – which increased to 18.5% last month from 18.0% in July.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium which produced the report with analysts Springboard, said it is a "very worrying time".
"We are not quite there yet but large red warning signs are looming for a retail crisis," he said.
"The worrying thing is that there is no tangible reason behind this. There is nothing to make the last month as bad as it is, not even bad weather.
"Northern Ireland consumers are smart when it comes to their Christmas shopping. They don't just buy in a rush in December, they pace themselves and pick up bits and pieces in the months leading to the holidays, not just last-minute dashes to stores."
Mr Connolly said footfall dropping by nearly 10% would set alarm bells ringing at any time of year "but it's doubly worrying this close to Christmas".
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, described the figures as "truly shocking".
"We need a new joined up and co-ordinated plan from the Executive to address key policy challenges facing our town centres, such as rates, planning, car parking and urban regeneration," he said. "We repeat our call for the Executive Sub Group on the Economy to agree this new action plan ASAP."
"Unless we see radical action, then more shops and jobs will be lost."
"These figures are a serious cause for concern and require radical and immediate action from the Executive to ensure that our town centres do not fall further into decline. It is truly shocking that not only does Northern Ireland have the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, but it now has a very serious reduction in footfall figures."
Glyn Roberts NIIRTA chief executive