Bleak Black Friday in Northern Ireland as traders feel the squeeze
Northern Ireland was the UK's worst performing region on Black Friday as the number of shoppers on high streets slumped by 7.2% compared to last year.
Shocking statistics from retail experts Springboard show that while footfall across the UK dipped by 4.2% last Friday, the figure here was almost twice that, as shoppers gave local stores the cold shoulder.
And high streets here performed even worse during the rest of the Black Friday weekend, with footfall nosediving by 17.3% on Saturday and by 14.9% on Sunday.
Overall, footfall on Northern Ireland's high streets dropped by 12.2% over the entire Black Friday weekend, and by 4% in the week leading up to it.
Chief economist at EY Ireland Neil Gibson said he was "shocked" at the dramatic drop and warned it could herald a "challenging time ahead" for retailers here.
Footfall also dropped across the UK as a whole, but less dramatically, falling by 2.6% on Saturday and 2.3% on Sunday. Between Friday and Sunday, high street footfall was down a total 2.9% across the UK.
The slump was less pronounced in other UK regions, dropping by 8.2% in Scotland and by 2.4% in Wales over the entire Black Friday weekend.
Mr Gibson said he was "surprised that footfall in Northern Ireland should be down so significantly".
"Is this is a bellwether that the much-predicted consumer squeeze is really coming?" he asked. "If it is, it suggests a challenging time ahead for the retail sector.
"I don't think we are looking at shop closures before Christmas. Retailers will be looking at results over the whole festive period. I don't think it will have an immediate effect on the high street in Northern Ireland.
"It needs to be taken in conjunction with the whole of the Christmas period, but there may be challenging conversations in the New Year."
Mr Gibson attributed the decline in footfall here to lower salaries, high inflation and increased competition. He added: "Northern Ireland residents have lower than average salaries relatively speaking, and if more people are on lower incomes they will spend more of their money on food staples.
"The squeeze on consumers is very real because of high inflation, and has particularly pronounced effects on regions like Northern Ireland, where the income profile is less.
"However, I would have expected that effect to have been seen in other UK regions as well.
"Retailers know that the consumer squeeze has been coming and it will be harder to tempt people out.
"They need to find reasons to get people into shops - they are battling consumer pressures, online and increased competition from other retailers.
"Northern Ireland has been helped by three things - tourism, cross-border shopping and the fact that more people are in work.
"We have been insulated by these factors, but the figures suggest that even they can't fully offset the pressures of people not being able to spend in the way they did a year or two ago.
"It would be interesting to confirm with other industries whether people have less disposable income, so they are not spending money at all, or whether they are spending it online or in another way."
Economist John Simpson said he "wasn't surprised" by the results and described Northern Ireland as "lagging behind the rest of the UK".
"I think we will have a much less successful festive period than we have had in recent years," he said. "Retailers will be panicking.
"I would say that the situation in Northern Ireland is either because we are catching up with the trend for internet shopping, or because of lower incomes.
"In the absence of Stormont, spending has been delayed, which will have a knock-on effect. And some of this is the Brexit effect."
Andrew Webb, chairman of Belfast City Centre management, also suggested the lower footfall could be partly due to Brexit.
"After the decision to leave the EU, sterling fell dramatically, which attracted shoppers from the south," he said.
"This year, it's not as good for them. I also think there's a sense of Black Friday being passé, there's a Black Friday fatigue as shoppers realise there are still bargains to be had during the rest of the year."
However, Mr Webb said he didn't feel local retailers are "at the point of being worried" yet.
He added: "There is plenty of time left for people to come out and do their shopping.
"Long-term, the battle will be against the internet retailers."
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts, whose organisation represents local independent retailers, said businesses here are still hoping for a "great Christmas".
"Footfall is not the most accurate of indicators and we wouldn't be overly worried - we focus on sales," he said.
"Black Friday isn't as important for many independent retailers as this weekend's Small Business Saturday.
"The retail sector has undergone profound change.
"Our members value a high level of customer service, not just a faceless machine.
"It's not just about the retail offering, it's about hospitality, the experience."
Springboard said that the drop in footfall on Black Friday was "larger than forecast" and attributed it to factors including inflation and interest, Black Friday sales starting early, discounts being available after Black Friday, and online offers.