Belfast Telegraph

Sales levels static but firms remain upbeat

By Margaret Canning

Sales appear to have steadied for some Northern Ireland firms in a positive sign for the business environment.

Out of around 600 respondents to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce quarterly survey for January to March, 45% said sales were the same during that period as they were at the tail-end of last year.

However, just over one quarter told the latest survey that sales had declined.

The survey said: "These results show sales were slightly more static compared to the final quarter of 2011."

The new year had also blown off the cobwebs of negativity with more business people predicting that confidence would grow.

Those predicting a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow had risen from 40% of respondents at the end of last year to 47% this year.

Those who were gloomily predicting a fall in turnover had dropped from 30% to 21%.

There was a decline in those reporting a fall in exports, from 30% in the last quarter of 2011 to 22% between January and March this year.

More companies also indicated that they expected to hire additional staff - just over one in five compared to 14% in the quarter before.

Nearly two-thirds said their workforce was staying the same, up 5% on quarter four.

And Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber, said: "After the disappointing results from the last quarter in 2011, it was pleasing to see an improvement in most indicators in the first three months of this year.

"It was particularly good that there was a noticeable improvement in the exporting performance of firms both in the manufacturing and service sector. Confidence is up with most firms expecting an improvement in turnover and profitability over the next 12 months.

"However, the continuing weakness in domestic sales, especially in the manufacturing sector, shows that the economy still faces many challenges."

Despite the general rise in confidence, business bugbears continued, with competition and tax emerging as the main pressures on firms.

The survey follows economic forecasts for Northern Ireland from Ernst -amp; Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers predicting growth of 0.4% and 0.2% respectively.