Almost one in five shops is lying empty in Northern Ireland — the highest vacancy rate in the UK, a new report reveals today.
And the number of shoppers has also dropped sharply in recent months, according to the research from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The BRC report paints a dire picture facing the retail sector here — with falling footfall coupled with a rising number of empty shops.
According to the research, the month of April was particularly bad for retailers with the number of shoppers dropping by 15.1% on the same month the year before.
This is something of a blow to retailers given the extra thousands of visitors coming in to Northern Ireland last month for a series of events and festivities linked to the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. It is thought the unseasonably cold spring weather may have been a factor in the dropping number of people hitting the shops.
The BRC is a trade association for the UK retail trade industry. Among its report’s key findings are:
- Northern Ireland shop vacancy rates for April were 16.6% – well above the UK average of 11.1% – and accounting for almost one in five shops;
- The BRC says this is the highest vacancy rate in the UK;
- The 16.6% vacancy rate marked a rise of 2.5% on January this year when it stood at 14.1%;
- Shopper numbers across the province fell by 4.7% from February-April this year on the same period last year;
- This is compared to a 2% drop in the UK;
- Northern Ireland’s three month decline was driven by a 15.1% drop in shopper numbers in April, compared to the same month in 2011;
- This is compared to a 4.2% drop across the UK for April.
Retail experts are calling on the Executive to step in and help stave off what is seen as a crisis facing shops.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), said: “It's reached crisis point and unless we get an effective policy response from the Government it's going to get worse.
“We need planning policy and support for town centres — we need to get car parking right and we need to get rates right.
“It's shocking that during April, despite thousands of tourists here, we didn't see a difference in terms of shopping and, in fact, footfall continued to decrease. This was probably to do with continued pressure on disposable income.
“Last year over 1,000 small shops closed and we're seeing this more than double in 2012. There is between 30 and 50% vacancy rates in some towns.”
The Belfast Chamber of Commerce has already called for a ministerial meeting.
Its president Joe Jordan said the report highlights that the Northern Ireland retail scene is “suffering more than most”.
He said: “We need to lobby ministers to try and reverse the decline. The chamber is seeking to have a joint ministerial meeting with the ministers from the departments of Environment, Regional Development, Finance and Personnel, Social Development and Enterprise, Trade and Investment. At this meeting the chamber will outline the difficulties that the business community is facing in Belfast.”
Jane Bevis, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director, said: “These figures show how much we need the Executive to legislate to make it possible to get Business Improvement Districts up and running quickly.”
The difficult conditions are also being felt by Londonderry retailers despite their border location.
“Business is difficult all round. Very few businesses are reporting back that things are going well. People’s disposable income is becoming less and less,” said Derry city centre manager Jim Roddy.
“When the euro is going well we get more trade but that is not something we can plan for. The euro is the weakest it has been for quite some time now and that obviously has a knock-on effect.”
And retail analyst Donald McFettridge from the University of Ulster warned: “When the statistics are rolled out again in three months, it's more than likely they will be much worse than present.
“As 2012 proceeds we are likely to see further store rationalisation and we will see this particularly in the mid-market drapery sector which is feeling the pinch. It started with Peacocks and continued with Game Group.”
Additional reporting by Brendan McDaid and Donna Deeney
A Titanic struggle ... but oil price fall fuels a little hope for future David Elliott
By David Elliot
Pulling down the shutters for the last time while fireworks sparkle over the Lagan in celebration of the new Titanic Belfast building is an irony which won’t be lost on the retailers of Northern Ireland.
While we might be using a little bit of artistic licence in this scenario it won’t be far from the truth given that shopper numbers fell nearly 5% in the three months to the end of April and a staggering 15% in the month of April.
This seeming divergence of two of our biggest economies — retail and tourism — is worrying, but with only one side of the argument to go on it’s not completely proven.
The reason, as it often is in business, is down to the statistics.
While we’ve just been supplied with numbers for the retail sector we’re still waiting on details of tourist numbers, hotel occupancy rates and revenue from the all singing, all dancing centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and its ilk before we can draw a true comparison.
Anecdotal evidence suggests tourists are certainly flocking to these shores and retailers must be looking on in envy at the glittering honey pot which has been erected to make life easier for their counterparts in the tourist industry.
There’s no doubt retailers are suffering but there’s precious little government or anyone else can do about it.
In essence customers don’t have as much disposable income to spend as they did one, three or five years ago.
Rocketing bills for food, fuel and travel have meant that the amount of money left in the pockets of your average consumer has dwindled to a few coppers and until the economy picks up or the price of one of these bills falls, retailers are going to struggle.
The former doesn’t look very likely given the turmoil witnessed in the European economy but — whisper it quietly — the latter may have already occurred. The market for Brent crude oil, the raw material used to make petrol, diesel and home heating oil, has plummeted since the start of April by nearly 14%.
That means the price of these everyday costs should, eventually, follow suit which means you and I have more money in our pockets and therefore more money to spend in our struggling shops. It may not seem like much but it’s at least something to put a smile of the face of beleaguered shopkeepers.