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Northern Ireland retailers urge a deal at Stormont as footfall slumps

By Margaret Canning

Northern Ireland’s retail industry needs devolved government back up and running as soon as possible, a trade body said today. 

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium spoke as figures showed March was the third consecutive month of declining footfall here. 

Numbers were down 3.7% year-on-year in March, though the fall was less steep than 4.1% a month earlier. 

High street and shopping centre footfall were down by 3.6% and 3.9% respectively. 

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said businesses had been fighting the trend of falling numbers by trying to offer customers greater choice.

He said: “This same focus is what we would like to see from our politicians in the next few weeks as the window for an agreement closes.”

Mr Connolly said the industry was already at a disadvantage here, where discretionary income is much lower than in the rest of the UK.

“We can be unequivocal in saying our industry believes that devolved government for Northern Ireland is worth having and has delivered results. We need it back up and running as soon as possible not only for our industry and others, but for the Northern Ireland consumer who already has half of the discretionary spend of our Great Britain neighbours.

“Our members already support the Government in areas as diverse as employment, health and the economy, but we need to have an Executive working for a common purpose, that of making Northern Ireland a better place to do business, to invest and of course to live.”

Peter Murray, manager of the Buttercrane Shopping Centre in Newry, said it had also experienced a fall in footfall during March.

He cited research by information company Experian, which recorded a 5.22% fall in footfall in shops last month.

But he said the later timing of Easter this year — in the middle of April instead of the end of March — accounted for some of the year-on-year discrepancy.

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director of Springboard, said it was too early to panic over the local retail sector.

“March was the second consecutive month with a decline in Northern Ireland’s high street footfall, and the third for its shopping centres, but given the historic trend for swings in footfall from positive to negative and back again it is too early to state categorically that its retail destinations are under strain,” she said.

But she added retail in Northern Ireland was in stark contrast to the UK as a whole. Footfall in high streets in the UK rose by 1.7%, while shopping centre visits  were up 0.2%.

She said that much of the 1.3% growth in footfall across the board had been in the hours after 5pm. 

“This all lends further evidence to the fact that retail is no longer the sole driver of footfall, with a strong leisure/hospitality offer being a critical element to secure retail success,” she added.

Retailers here had hoped that the later timing of Easter this year would bring out greater crowds than last year.

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