Belfast Telegraph

Christmas fears as Northern Ireland shop footfall decreases by 5%

Retail experts express concern ahead of festive season as Northern Ireland figures worst in UK

By Clare Weir

Retail footfall in Northern Ireland fell by 5.3% last month, according to a new report.

It was the worst fall in all of the UK regions in the monthly survey by Springboard.

The figures follow a separate study which also showed that retailers here reported a particularly sharp decline in business activity in October.

The vacancy rate of shops in Northern Ireland was 16.6%, which, while marginally improved from the previous quarter, is the highest in the UK.

Experts say that the news does not bode well ahead of the festive shopping period.

Diane Wehrle, retail insights director at Springboard, said the 5.3% drop in footfall was the first decline since June of this year.

There was a decline of 9.8% in October 2013.

"At the same time, Northern Ireland's vacancy rate remains high at 16.6%, which is the highest of any part of the UK, and which will only get higher as the large number of retail leases that are due to expire over the period to December 2015 will inevitably offer retailers an opportunity to vacate poorer performing locations." she said.

In October's purchasing managers index report from Ulster Bank, retail was the only sector to report an outright decline in business activity.

Richard Ramsey, chief economist with Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, said that at first glance, a loss of consumer confidence it was at odds with other indicators that suggested that consumer sentiment remained relatively resilient.

"For example, new car sales posted further year-on-year growth last month," he said.

"It should be remembered that measuring footfall doesn't capture the digital footprint of Northern Ireland's consumers.

"The sharp fall in retail footfall probably conceals a strong-pick up in online sales rather than a sharp drop in consumer confidence. The coming months will be watched closely as the Christmas period is the most important for retailers.

"Capturing online footfall is increasingly becoming as important, if not more so, than attracting shoppers into retailers' stores."

Ulster University retail analyst Donald McFetridge said that the figures were "extremely disappointing".

"This does not send out much encouragement to already dispirited consumers in the few short weeks ahead in the lead-up to Christmas," he said.

"Statistics such as these send out signals to consumers that there is something more radically wrong with the Northern Ireland economy than at first appears, especially with such a dramatic month-on-month decrease.

"To drop 5.3% over the course of one month is extremely worrying - not just for retailers but also for hard-pressed consumers.

"One can only hope that these statistics are not a portent of more bad news to come when the November figures are released," he said.

Mr McFetridge said that while some analysts and retailers were keen to blame the weather for a decline in footfall or sales, there were much more fundamental issues.

"Let's just hope that it's more a case of consumers "holding off" spending in anticipation of a spree in the run-up to Christmas rather than a trend which is set to continue," he said.

Belfast Telegraph