Retailers need a helping hand
A burgeoning economy, giving consumers plenty of disposable income and the confidence of good job prospects, is the perfect recipe for a vibrant retail sector. However, you don't need to be an economist to know that those conditions do not exist at present in Northern Ireland, where economic recovery is still the slowest of any region of the UK.
Hence it should be no great surprise that retailers here are feeling the pinch. Throw in a very poor summer and it is little wonder that many stores, in particular fashion outlets, are being forced to launch lengthy cut-price sales to move stock and make way for their autumn and winter stock.
While many of the drivers of economic recovery are beyond the control of the Stormont Executive, it is also evident that hard times call for desperate measures to boost this crucial sector, which employs up to 17% of the workforce. Consumers are being cautious, given the warnings of austerity to come, but central government and local authorities need to be more imaginative to help increase footfall throughout city and town centres. And there needs to be greater joined-up thinking between departments to make a real impact on shopping trends.
The planning process needs to be streamlined. This is not giving carte blanche to those wanting to set up shop here, but we cannot afford to have another debacle like the John Lewis application to open on the outskirts of Lisburn, which has seen the retailer having to continually jump through hoops and yet not reach a resolution. A report shows that more than 200 high-end retailers, which are found in other major cities in the UK, are absent from our high street.
Could the lack of prime retail space and the tortuous planning processes be one reason for their reluctance to come here? But the priority must remain those retailers who are here already and who are struggling. Could a rates holiday be the lifeline they need to tide them over to recovery?
Other disincentives to consumers, such as the plethora of bus lanes in Belfast, which make motorists feel unwelcome, car parking charges and the proliferation of traffic wardens also need to be closely examined.
More late night shopping - after all, most people don't finish work until 5pm - could also attract more customers. If we do nothing there will be even more boarded-up shop fronts.