Wake-up call as figures reveal one in six of Northern Ireland's shops now lying vacant
One in six shops in Northern Ireland's towns remains vacant amid the second worst performance in retail footfall in the UK, figures showed today.
The province had the highest level of shop vacancies for April in the UK with a 16.1% rate reported.
And there was a 7% drop in high street footfall, and a 2.8% drop in visitors to shopping centres.
Shop vacancies here have increased from 14.7% in January - but the rate for April is down slightly on the 16.3% level of April last year.
And although Scotland suffered the worst drop in footfall with a 6.2% decline, its shop vacancy rate is one in 12.
Overall, the monitoring report from the British Retail Consortium indicated an average 2.4% drop in retail footfall on 2015.
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said that the figures made stark reading for the new Executive up at Stormont.
"The statistic that gives me the most concern is the shop vacancy rate," he said.
"That's a very clear wake-up call and a call to action to the Executive to urgently address this problem of a high level of shop vacancy and dereliction in their town centres."
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, backed that call to the Executive. "There must be clear, bold and effective decisions made to support an industry which employs over 70,000 directly, and more through the supply chain," he said.
"The new Executive must recognise the cumulative burden faced by retailers in areas as diverse as business rates, the National Living Wage and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy."
Diane Wehrle from Springboard described our footfall performance as "notoriously volatile". "A sharp decrease such as this, which followed reasonable results in March, is not unusual. This volatility is undoubtedly a key factor in the persistently high vacancy rate which rose once again to 16.1% from 14.7% in January," she added.
Economist Andrew Webb said the new figures were "interesting and surprising".
"Consumer confidence has also remained reasonable, certainly nothing to suggest that level of a drop in footfall," he said. "Our town centres need to think of innovative ways to reinvigorate and provide a compelling reason to come back."
Greater London's shop vacancy rate is half of Northern Ireland's at 7.6%.
UK-wide, high street footfall was down 3.8%, with shopping centres at 1.8% and retail parks 2.7%. No region reported an increase in footfall in April.