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Coronavirus sees footfall in Northern Ireland shops hit an all-time low as shopper numbers fall by 80%

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The opening of homeware stores such as B&Q boosted footfall in the second half of April

The opening of homeware stores such as B&Q boosted footfall in the second half of April

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The opening of homeware stores such as B&Q boosted footfall in the second half of April

New retail figures have revealed that Northern Ireland suffered its greatest footfall drop in history during April - but there is an indication smaller high streets are likely to recover first.

Retail experts Springboard said overall footfall in all shopping landscapes here plummeted by 80.3% compared to last year during April.

It said the decline was "of an unprecedented magnitude".

It added that larger city centres suffered worse across the UK, with a drop of 89.7% as consumers stuck to their more local shopping areas.

In Northern Ireland, shopping centres fared worse, enduring a drop of 83.7%. The high street saw its footfall decrease by 79.2% while retail parks weathered the storm relatively better with a drop of 68.1%.

The report said that lockdown has marked a notable shift in shopping patterns, seeing the smaller towns and villages benefit from people shopping more locally.

"Footfall shifted away from large towns and cities to smaller, more local centres," it said.

"The 20 high streets in the UK with the most modest drops in footfall (each less than -60%) are small centres."

And Springboard said it believes the path for recovery may be led by smaller high streets "which can offer safety and community benefits".

It said shopping environments where capacity allowed for safe social distancing, such as shopping centres and retail parks, will be better able to control shopper numbers and may recover more quickly that denser high streets.

Diane Wehrle, Springboard marketing and insights director, said despite the depressing figures, the second half of April did see a rise in footfall.

She said: "Despite lockdown restrictions, and the Government urging consumers to stay at home, footfall in Northern Ireland strengthened slightly in the second half of the month, moving from an average of -80.4% in the first two weeks to -76.2% in weeks three and four.

"This was most noticeable in retail parks where across the UK the drop in footfall shifted from -70.7% in weeks one and two to -63.3% in weeks three and four. Part of this uplift will be a result of the opening of large DIY and home stores which generated long queues at some retail parks."

Ms Wehrle said smaller towns are likely to see a turnaround in customers post lockdown.

She added: "In contrast to pre-coronavirus days when small high streets were facing an increasing struggle to attract shoppers, the path of recovery for retail may well be led by smaller high streets which can offer both safety and community benefits.

"For larger destinations, the emphasis on safety suggests that those environments that have the capability to control shopper numbers - such as retail parks and shopping centres - will be the next phase of recovery, followed by large towns and cities which inevitably face issues around pedestrian congestion."

The results were released as it was announced that garden centres in Wales can reopen.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said retailers who are operating presently in NI - including grocery stores and pharmacies - had demonstrated that a new, safer way of working has been successful and that a new plan from Stormont was needed going forward for other retailers.

"What is needed now in Northern Ireland is visibility on the route out of lockdown, as has been published in Ireland," he said.

Belfast Telegraph