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Nice facades can't mask retail crisis in Northern Ireland

Drive through some of our cities or towns and you could be forgiven for thinking that shopkeepers have never had it so good. To the casual observer there is hardly a vacant shopfront to be seen – but it is all an illusion. For some £8m has been spent on 59 schemes to paint or, literally, paper over the cracks in this business sector.

Talented artists and the use of large scale photographic images of thriving retail businesses have made some of our high streets look like Hollywood film lots. In fairness, they present a much more pleasant view of those high streets than boarded up premises. Nothing quite paints a picture of decline like derelict buildings with shop names fading and graffiti scrawled across the chipboard shutters.

The fake shopfronts idea was spawned in New York and appropriately has been adopted here to present a positive image of the province primarily for the recent G8 conference and the upcoming Giro d'Italia cycle race. There were few retail eyesores for the television cameras or newspaper photographers to focus on.

Image, of course, is important, especially in a province which is hoping to increase its tourist footfall. Who wants to go to a place where the economy is apparently in decline? Yet the camouflage is only a short term solution which will eventually be seen through. More incentives are required to entice shopping back to town centres, including revision of parking charges to encourage shoppers to desert the free out-of-town malls.

And there also needs to be more imagination. Not all the empty shops are going to re-open due to the changing nature of retailing and the increasing emphasis on online shopping. Farmers' markets and craft days are two examples, but perhaps towns or streets need to create a themed identity such as centres for antiques, books or specialist hobby shops – the type of retailing that requires high levels of customer service and knowledge which cannot be found in the pile-'em-high, sell-'em-cheap outlets. One thing is sure, even the most stunning artwork is no long term solution to a retailing crisis.

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