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Aodhan Connolly

The storm clouds are gathering over Northern Ireland's retail sector

Aodhan Connolly


Support from the Executive and backing of shoppers is vital for our retail industry

Support from the Executive and backing of shoppers is vital for our retail industry

Support from the Executive and backing of shoppers is vital for our retail industry

It is no secret that the retail industry has been going through an immensely tough time in this past few months. Retailers large and small across the UK have lost billions due to the sheer scale of the collapse in sales during March to July compared to the same period last year.

Retail accounts for 15% of all employment in Northern Ireland as well as supporting thousands of supply chain jobs in everything from agri-food and services.

It is an excellent bellwether of the wider economy. If retail is doing well you can be pretty certain the rest of the economy is too and conversely bad news for retail is a harbinger of an ill wind for other industries.

That's why this last quarter of the year is going to be so important to an industry that is already struggling and we can already see the thundery clouds gathering for what could be a second perfect storm following the lockdown.

From the end of October to the end of the traditional January sales is what we in the trade call our golden quarter.

This is when many retailers make the majority of their profit for the year and what sees them through the leaner months of the rest of January, February and March.

Quite simply, it is our most important time of the year and that's why any challenges at this time are unwelcome. And boy do we have challenges coming...

The country is now officially in recession. The Office for National Statistics latest figures said the UK downturned in lockdown, with a 20.4% slump in GDP, its worst ever.

However, Northern Ireland's separate composite economic index had already shown two quarters of shrinking growth - meaning we had already been in recession. That could easily translate into a vicious cycle of lower consumer confidence and reduced consumer spend at the very time when retailers need to hear the tills ringing to ensure their survival.

Also a possibility are local or regional lockdowns or (God forbid) a second wave of Covid-19 which again would prevent consumers from returning to our high streets and retail destinations.

Such instances would also put back the return of town and city centre workers which means a lack of people on the high street from offices which again decreases footfall, normal trade as well as the ever important impulse spend.

But it is not just about the lack of money coming in.

The costs for retailers have been huge on extra staff, PPE, and social distancing measures, which we estimate to have cost over £5m in Northern Ireland so far.

These costs will continue to rise over the coming months as the furlough scheme ends and some very hard decisions will have to be made. And added to all this is the uncertainty and the costs associated with preparation for the end of the UK-EU economic transition period where there is still a lack of detail.

Some retailers want detail to ensure they comply with the new regime... whilst others simply want to find out if they have a viable business model come the 1st of January.

While some of these challenges are out of our hands, there others that are in our power here in Northern Ireland. The money pledged by Ministers Ni Chuilin and Poots to support cities, towns and villages with everything from signage to awnings is welcome as is the High Streets Task Force announced by the Executive but which has not met yet.

However, we need to look at other measures especially reform of our antiquated business rates system and ways to give shoppers confidence to return to our retail destinations, and that means working in partnership with hospitality, leisure and government.

This is all shaping up to be an almighty test for the industry.

Many household names have stumbled or tumbled over recent months, and every indication is that the shake out is set to continue unless the industry gets the support it needs from the Executive and from the canny NI shopper.

Belfast Telegraph