Slump in shoppers blamed on blizzards
The snow blizzards have been blamed for keeping shoppers away from town and city centres after new figures revealed a disappointing drop in retail activity last month.
The research found a 4% drop in the number of people passing through stores here in March compared to a year earlier.
However, this is better than the rest of the UK where shopper numbers were down 5.2%.
The slump in numbers, which followed a 2.6% rise in February, was bad news for beleaguered retailers who had only just started getting back on their feet. Millions of pounds in trade were lost after a torrid few months on the high street in Belfast after loyalist demonstrations deterred people from coming in to the city centre.
Parts of the city were left deserted as consumers and commuters hurried home to avoid riots and traffic gridlock.
Aodhan Connolly, of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the figures from Springboard were disappointing for hard-hit local traders.
"The prolonged cold snap was a key factor that kept shoppers at bay for much of the month," he said.
"Unseasonal weather has also cooled demand for new lines which we would expect to sell well at this time of year, like spring and summer fashion ranges, putting retailers in Northern Ireland under further strain.
"Footfall growth in Northern Ireland is the UK's third highest in a month when all areas were in negative territory, but it's a disappointing result after a good showing in February and confirms that the retail environment remains volatile."
Mr Connolly said retailers are now hoping that the recent onset of more spring-like weather translates into better fortunes in April.
During the height of the snow, economist John Simpson said shops were losing some £2.5m each day due to the adverse conditions.
Despite the unseasonal blizzards, Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) chief executive Glyn Roberts said many shops had still enjoyed buoyant trade over Easter.
"For many, the freak weather did damage town centres in terms of sales and footfall, but a number of local shops did well because people didn't want to travel too far in the bad weather," he said.
"These figures are just a blip. There were reports that many of our members had a good Easter.
"The trend is going in the right direction after a number of difficult months."
Diane Wehrle, retail insights director at Springboard, said the bad weather and the benefit system reforms have hit consumer confidence.
"High street footfall dropped with just one in five towns across the UK recording positive results," she said.
"Moreover, the average increase amongst towns in which footfall did increase was just 6.9% compared with an average decline of 11.4% amongst those high streets whose footfall fell from March last year.
"It's key to bear in mind that March 2013 was much colder than in 2012, where most of the UK experienced unseasonable soaring temperatures, whereas rain, snow and bitter cold further encouraged shoppers to stay at home.
"The final week of the month did yield some positive results, with retail park footfall significantly bolstered, up 7.9% against the previous week, with home-owners taking advantage of the long Easter bank holiday to visit DIY out-of-town outlets."
The Retail Footfall Monitor gathers data on customer activity at shopping locations throughout the UK.
It records over 60 million footfall counts per week at 600 locations in 227 different shopping sites in 142 towns.