Belfast Telegraph

Christmas cheer for Ulster retail as shops in UK suffer

By Margaret Canning

Christmas shoppers were out in force in Northern Ireland last month while their UK counterparts largely stayed away, according to new figures.

Springboard yesterday said shopper numbers here were up 1.4% in December on a year earlier. The retail information service said 2014 was a good year overall for Northern Ireland's shopkeepers, with overall footfall up 2% on 2013.

December's increase contrasted with the rest of the UK, where footfall was down 0.7% on the year before.

But the UK's December collapse in footfall was an improvement on November, when shopper numbers were down 2.4% year-on-year.

However, in bad news for the high street UK-wide, out-of-town retail was the only sector to report an increase in December, up 1.3% on a year earlier.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said: "Northern Ireland recorded a very healthy and welcome spike in shopper footfall numbers in December, bolstered by the important Christmas trading period and by retailers' own promotional activities.

"The resumption in footfall growth last month led to Northern Ireland recording the fourth best results from across 10 different parts of the UK."

He said the "robust" growth over 2014 was better than Scotland, Wales and the UK as a whole.

Mr Connolly added: "Policy-makers in Northern Ireland should seek to capitalise on this positive news in 2015 by pursing policies which keep down the cost of doing business and which make our town centres and high streets as attractive and accessible as possible."

Diane Wehrle of Springboard said Northern Ireland had healthier growth than the rest of the UK as it had recorded above-average growth in footfall in both shopping centres and high streets.

She added: "The improved footfall position, in combination with the increasing maturity of online shopping, indicates that online is driving activity back into bricks and mortar stores."

The shopping figures come as a consumer survey from Danske Bank said confidence among consumers in Northern Ireland took a dip towards the end of 2014 after reaching a six-year high at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, Argos has reported flat sales following a "volatile" Christmas trading period in which high demand for Black Friday promotions skewed its performance.

Home Retail Group said Argos's like-for-like sales for the 18 weeks to January 3 were broadly unchanged at 0.1% higher, as strong TV and video gaming sales offset a decline in jewellery. Total sales lifted 0.8% to £1.8bn.

Chief executive John Walden said Argos sales were up by 45% on Black Friday after it received more than 13.5 million visitors to its digital channels, three times last year's number of visitors.

But he added: "The draw of discounts affected trade both before and after that busy weekend as consumers satisfied their Christmas shopping lists with bargains."

As a result of the trading volatility, Argos pursued a more cautious trading stance over the festive period to protect margins.

Home Retail's DIY chain Homebase saw total sales fall 2.7% to £451m, as the group closed 12 stores in the period, in line with its October plan to close a quarter of its 323 stores by 2018 due to poor sales performances.

Like-for like sales at Homebase rose 0.6%.

The group remains on track to meet full-year profits targets but shares opened 5% lower yesterday after the like-for-like sales figure for Argos came in below the City forecasts for growth of around 2%.

Belfast Telegraph