Belfast Telegraph

Business Soapbox: Martin Walsh

Paying attention to consumers' behaviour is just one of the ways that shops can beat the recession

Few retailers - big and small - can deny the challenges 2012 have brought. The number of shops closing have increased, particularly on our high streets, as consumers hold tight to their cash, while the continued march of the internet remains a concern.

The current climate has forced many retailers to take a much more customer-focused approach.

The old adage that 'retail is detail' is never truer than during a recession. The key is to be very aware of where your business is coming from and to adapt your marketing activity accordingly. A classic mistake is to assume consumer behaviour will be rational. It rarely is.

A key point to keep in mind is that, in a recession, whilst overall spending does contract, what does more damage to most retailers is failing to connect with the change in consumer spending patterns. The emotional shift in consumers' minds from ambition to self-preservation makes people buy differently - but they still buy.

Just because the economic climate is challenging, it doesn't mean consumers should not be listened to - it's exactly the right time to listen even more.

At Rushmere Shopping Centre, we are, perhaps, more optimistic than most. Our footfall figures continue to outperform the region. For week commencing July 9, we reported a 5% increase against the same period last year - a testament to just how much we have been listening.

But there are other factors involved. Located in mid-Ulster, we can draw shoppers in from a wide geographic area.

For us, choice is important. Despite the challenges facing the sector, Rushmere will be 100% occupied within the next couple of months with a varied range of retail stores, offering designer fashion to home ware and DIY and electricals.

However, we are not complacent. The business environment could be better. We know that the economic conditions affect both out-of-town and high street retail and many are finding it tough.

So where do we go from here?

Predicting the future is a difficult task, but I have few doubts that right across the UK and Ireland, many parts of the retail sector will continue to struggle. The march of the internet and the online shopper will continue to pose difficulties for face-to-face retailing, though 'click and collect' methods are helping to drive footfall back in store.

Our economy - locally and nationally - will probably continue to struggle for some time yet and we need to see faster growth here to support jobs which will support consumer spending.

Martin Walsh is centre manager at Rushmere, Craigavon

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