Retail experts have voiced fears of a difficult Christmas trading period after shopper numbers across Northern Ireland dropped sharply for the second consecutive month.
A new report from analysts Springboard and the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), released today, found footfall was down 3.1% in September compared with the same period last year.
The drop in shopper numbers here was worse than the 2.4% reduction across the UK as a whole.
It also followed on from a 1.5% decline in footfall in August – and industry experts are beginning to fear for the festive season.
NIRC boss Aodhán Connolly said September's disappointing retail results were a "real cause for concern this close to Christmas".
"Although recent months have seen cautious optimism building for the general economic outlook, these figures, as well as a recent sales slowdown after strong growth over the summer, serve as a reminder that conditions remain challenging," he said.
"Retailers in Northern Ireland will be hoping that this is only a short-lived run of disappointing results, and that footfall will start to return to more positive territory as we enter the all-important pre-Christmas trading period."
University of Ulster retail expert Donald McFetridge said: "Last Christmas, retailers in Belfast had a poor Christmas due to the Union flag protests and – the way things stand at the minute – it doesn't look like the situation is going to be much improved," he said. "Recent research is predicting that – nationally – this is going to be one of the best Christmases since 2007 for retailers but I fear that Northern Ireland may miss out unless we achieve an expeditious resolution to the current political situation."
Union flag protests devastated traders in Belfast before Christmas last year after loyalists objected to a decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the emblem to designated days.
Weeks of demonstrations, at times violent, cost businesses up to £15m because they deterred people from the city centre. Overall, the report showed that September shopper numbers were down across the UK year-on-year.
Diane Wehrle, retail insights director at Springboard, said September sales were driven by electrical and leisure goods, while clothing and footwear purchases fell.
"Footfall generally declines from August to September in high streets and shopping centres, as spending tails off with the end of the holiday and back to school periods," she said.
"However, this year the 5% drop in footfall in high streets and 2.1% drop in footfall in shopping centres from August to September was more significant than previous years, particularly for high streets, which has inevitably adversely impacted the rate of change."
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson (right) last week warned that Union flag protests, which brought traders in Belfast to their knees last Christmas, could be repeated this year. He said he had heard of "some proposals" to hold protests leading up to the festive period, adding: "I hope people will reflect on the damage that would cause to Northern Ireland and to traders in Belfast, potentially leading to a loss of jobs." The NI Independent Retail Trade Association has previously warned over disruption devastating the high street.