End of a French Connection as chain closes its shops
High rates are among the factors being blamed for a slump in retail trade as another fashion stalwart vanishes from Northern Ireland.
French Connection is the latest well-known brand to fall victim to the downturn as its stores and concessions appear to have left the province's high streets and shopping centres for good.
The high-end fashion retailer shut its last Northern Ireland standalone shop in Belfast's Cornmarket in July – and founder and chief executive Stephen Marks revealed that other so called 'zombie outlets' were spared only because closures by other businesses meant that French Connection was unable to offload its shops without incurring further costs.
The Northern Ireland stores were run on a franchise model by Julian Jordan, and were an important destination for fashion-conscious shoppers for well over a decade.
He was not available for comment yesterday.
It had a presence through concessions in shopping centres – including Victoria Square's House of Fraser and in the Tempest section of Menary's shops – but a spokesman for French Connection yesterday confirmed they had all been closed.
The loss-making fashion house has 74 stores across the UK and Europe – following the closure of its shops in Belfast in July and in Londonderry's Ferryquay Street a few months before – but sales continue to slump.
Like-for-like sales in the company's UK and Europe outlets were down by 4.5% in the six months to the end of July, and pre-tax losses narrowed only slightly from £6.3m to £6.1m.
Colin Mathewson of commercial property consultants Osborne King said he believed rates were among the factors to blame for the high number of vacant shops.
"The biggest thing is that the the cost of rates is probably one of if not the biggest stumbling block to leasing retail units at the moment," he said.
He added it was the "singlemost (significant) thing that recurs" to explain why retailers are reluctant to open up in Northern Ireland.
He said landlords were doing "more than their part" in assisting prospective tenants by negotiating rates to fill empty units rather than leave them vacant.
"But rates are fixed," he said, preventing any similar renegotiation of terms.
The news that yet another former big name brand has foundered here follows statistics which show that the number of shoppers who made purchases fell in August fell by 1.5%.
August's disappointing figures marked the worse statistics in the whole of the UK where shopper numbers were down 0.9%, according to Northern Ireland Retail Consortium figures.
There had also been high expectations that events like the World Police and Fire Games and the All-Ireland Fleadh would give a much needed boost.