Festive trade may still not save many major retailers
D2 Jeans and Barratts Shoes are the first High Street casualties of the New Year. They are unlikely to be the last, says Donald C McFetridge
D2 Jeans, the Scotland-based retailer founded in 1999 by retail tycoon Sir Tom Hunter, became the first major casualty of poor trading conditions over the lead-up to Christmas.
Administrators have already been appointed and closed 19 of their 47 stores (including one in Belfast) and laid off 200 staff.
And more jobs are to be lost at the Barratts and Priceless shoe chain after an unsuccessful attempt to find a buyer for the business.
It is not yet clear at this stage which, if any, of the other Northern Ireland D2 Jeans stores will be closed. There are stores in Newtownabbey, Ballymena, Coleraine, Portadown, Bangor, Belfast, Lisburn, Omagh, Enniskillen and Londonderry. The remaining stores are going to be run as a going concern while administrators seek a buyer for all, or parts, of the business.
D2 Jeans was in a similar situation two years ago and is currently operating in much more streamlined form. In 2009, it successfully found a short-term solution to a chronic retail problem, but this time around it could prove to be much more difficult finding a buyer.
In spite of reports of increased footfall in Belfast and at prime shopping centre locations over the Christmas period, this is the first major retail casualty of the season.
As we start the new year, we haven't even received the final Christmas trading statements from other major retail names. These are due over the next week, with only the supermarkets, online retailers and a select few due to have anything positive to report.
It must be stressed that increased footfall does not always result in increased consumer spend. The fact that even the major High Street retailers are advertising sales of up to 70% off surely points to the fact that they have failed to shift the stock they needed to in order to meet their seasonal targets.
In retail parlance, D2 Jeans would be considered a "value" retail operator - a sector which has, until recently, been performing very well.
However, there are worries that other value retailers may also be in trouble, with the possibility of further store closures.
While House of Fraser and Debenhams are shining examples of the retail glitterati in Northern Ireland, with anticipated outstanding trading figures expected, not everyone has a happy story to tell.
One Co Derry retailer reportedly had takings of a meagre £75 on Christmas Eve. No wonder, then, that they were keen to get their shutters up with 75%-off promotions on December 27.
One of the major problems for the retail sector is that we have become a nation of bargain-hunters. Consumers have realised, if they wait long enough, they can brow-beat retailers into heavy discounting.
Few people are willing to pay top dollar for merchandise which they can source either online or in other locations at knock-down prices. The result is a catastrophe for struggling retailers.
Hopefully, D2's demise is not a portent of more bad news to come, but it's important to note that even the sharpest retail operators are already aware that it's not just those who appear "vulnerable" who are likely to find themselves in trouble.
Last week, we witnessed death on Oxford Street in London and the threat of a gun being fired near a perfume counter at Debenhams in Belfast, foiled only through expert in-store surveillance, the sharp reaction of excellent security staff and the services of the PSNI.
Sadly, neither surveillance, security staff nor the PSNI can prevent the further decline which is imminent on the High Street here as we start 2012.
Donald C McFetridge is a retail analyst at the Ulster Business School, University of Ulster