Belfast Telegraph

'Perfect storm' of Brexit and Stormont chaos give consumer confidence in Northern Ireland a battering

By Margaret Canning and Rachel Martin

Political uncertainty is hitting consumer confidence in Northern Ireland, a retail body has warned.

Footfall plunged 4% during February, according to a survey published today. The report by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Springboard said shopping numbers were down in high streets, shopping centres and retail parks alike.

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And the 4.1% slump seen here was the most pronounced of any UK region. It was also far below the three-month average of 0.5%, and an average of 0.7% over the last 12 months.

It comes after high streets in Northern Ireland recorded three months of growing footfall.

Retail parks across the UK - locations for picking up big ticket purchases like furniture - said footfall was down 1.6% in February.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said political uncertainty from a combination of Brexit and the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland was hitting consumer confidence.

"With the current political turmoil in Northern Ireland, the lack of certainty as to a government or budget and the fact we are only a few days from the triggering of Brexit brings a perfect storm of uncertainty at a time when we need to be sure of where Northern Ireland is going," he said.

Keith Irvine, the managing director of Wardens, a department store in Newtownards, Co Down, said that footfall was noticeably down. The store is celebrating 140 years of trading this year.

"I would have to agree with the figures," he said. "I think local politics isn't helping. Between Stormont and Brexit, people are feeling that there's a lot of uncertainty at the moment and are putting off shopping.

"Sometimes you can forget how quiet this time of year can be but we're just trying to bring in new stock and make sure the showroom is looking the best it can so that we're ready for when things do pick up."

But other retailers in towns around Northern Ireland - from McAtamneys Butchers, which has shops in 12 locations here, and Wallace's Department store in Ballymena - said footfall in their stores was still strong.

Thomas Wallace, the second generation of his family to operate the store, said constant innovation was crucial to staying ahead.

And John Apperley, co-owner of McAtamney's, said he believed the cost of parking in towns was making shopping less attractive.

Peter Murray, manager of the Buttercrane Shopping Centre in Newry, said its footfall was up by around 0.5% year-on-year.

Dr Esmond Birnie, an economist at Ulster University's economic policy centre, said he expected consumer spending here would fall.

He said there would only be "medium" growth of 1 to 1.5% in the Northern Ireland economy in 2017, which would hinder potential growth in spending.

In addition, consumer debt was growing, which was likely to provoke belt-tightening in future.

People had fewer savings to splash out with - and online shopping was also on the up.

"We can't go back to the high street of the 1970s and 1980s - although that doesn't mean we don't try to find new uses for the town and city centres - eg, city centre living," he said.

"If anything, the challenge from online is spreading - we may see more of the out-of-town/warehouse-type shops closing down."

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