New hope for Northern Ireland stores after biggest rise in high street shoppers for over a year
Northern Ireland's hard-hit retail sector has enjoyed a welcome bounce after shoppers came out in their droves in February.
A new report published on Monday indicates that shoppers across the province have gained renewed confidence with more people venturing into stores.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium/Springboard Footfall research found a 2.6% increase in the number of people passing through stores here in February compared to a year earlier.
This is significantly higher than the UK average of a 0.8% rise and second only to the Greater London area.
It also represents the strongest period of growth for footfall on the Northern Ireland high street since December 2011.
The hike in shopper numbers has been heralded as a major improvement after a torrid few months for retailers in Belfast city centre after millions was lost in trade after the Union flag demonstrations deterred people from coming in.
Parts of the centre were left deserted as shoppers and commuters hurried home to avoid traffic gridlock and riots.
The weekly Saturday lunch-time protest at Belfast City Hall has also had a major impact on weekend trade.
The welcome return of shoppers to the high street is being attributed to the recent peace, as well as campaigns aimed at encouraging people to support local businesses by giving them their custom.
One campaign aimed at encouraging shoppers back in to Belfast city centre was spearheaded by the Belfast Telegraph and featured a range of deals and offers for consumers.
It paved the way for a marketing and advertising campaign, Backin' Belfast, funded by Stormont and Belfast City Council.
According to the figures, retailers here fared considerably better than their average UK counterpart, where shopper numbers were up just 0.8%.
Ulster University retail expert Donald McFetridge said that these figures, although not conclusive, were very encouraging.
"Footfall alone is a weak indicator of overall economic activity because it refers to the number of people physically going into shops and not what, if anything, they are buying in them," said Mr McFetridge.
"But this development is significant because consumers had been staying away from the high street and we're now seeing a discernible change in that trend."
People avoided Belfast in their thousands in December and January following civil unrest linked to the council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag over city hall.
Restaurants, pubs and shops reported huge losses, prompting media and government intervention through the campaigns.
Aodhan Connolly, of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the figures are encouraging.
"The footfall is the second highest rate after Greater London and compares well against the UK average of 0.8%," he said.
"There are signs here that after a very disappointing December and January, shoppers are now starting to gain a renewed confidence.
"This is partly due to the Backin' Belfast campaign which the NIRC is supportive of and which has been a huge success, as well as the weeks of peace that we have had," said Mr Connolly.
He added: "However we must not be complacent with what is happening in the high street."
Footfall improved on the high street with a 2.7% increase compared with a year earlier, representing the strongest period of growth since December 2011.
But the report also revealed that footfall in shopping centres (-1.6%) and out-of-town (-1.5%) locations fell, although there was a significant improvement on January's figures.
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Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) boss Glyn Roberts said his members were reporting increased sales:
"There's no doubt that things have improved. The campaigns have had a positive impact and although footfall figures aren't necessarily an indication of sales, shops here are definitely reporting an increase in trade."
Colin Neill, chief of Pubs of Ulster, the industry umbrella group, said people are coming back into Belfast to socialise and spend money:
"The Backin' Belfast campaign is delivering 7-9% above the projections our members have for this period so it is definitely working. Things are still fragile, however, and if there is a parade in town things will die a death."
Botanic Inns managing director Stephen Magorrian said that the latest figures show that things are finally moving in the right direction:
"Performance in February is up on this time last year, mainly in food sales. Older people are making a statement about not letting their city be hijacked by flag protests. Backin' Belfast created an atmosphere and people rallied to the cause."