Fewer vacant shops on Northern Ireland's streets
The number of vacant shops in Northern Ireland has fallen despite a reduction in footfall for an eighth consecutive month, new figures show.
Industry experts said the research from Springboard offers some hope to beleaguered local traders following yet another disappointing set of statistics. The data - spanning four weeks from December 31, 2017, to January 27, 2018 - reveals that footfall in shops was down 2% last month, the worst result for January since 2015.
Year-on-year, the 2% reduction in Northern Ireland compared to a 1.6% fall in the UK as a whole - and was less deep than the three-month and 12-month average of 2.6%.
Drilling down into the figures it emerged that footfall dropped on the high street and at retail parks by 1.2%, and by 4.4% in shopping centres in January.
Meanwhile, the province's shop vacancy rate was 14.3%, down from 15.2% in October 2017 - but still the highest rate of anywhere in the UK.
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said that while the number of people visiting shops and shopping areas had gone up recently, it was still far too low. "A drop in Northern Ireland's footfall of 2.0% is an improvement on December's decline of 3.1% but the worst result for January since 2015, so it is clear that the challenges facing bricks and mortar retailing are continuing to build," she said.
"The 2.4% decline in Northern Ireland's high street footfall is more than 3% adrift from the increase of 2.4% in January 2017 whilst its shopping centre footfall continues to languish at -4.4%. In contrast activity in retail parks continues to grow, rising by 1.9% across the UK in January; despite furniture and household appliance sales in January being the worst of all 13 categories. Retail parks clearly now fulfil a wider role for shoppers; yes, they are convenient and functional shopping locations, but are buoyed by the continuing growth in online spending."
Ms Wehrle said the number of empty premises across the province remains a worry when the proliferation of pop-up shops ahead of the festive season is taken into account.
"At 14.3% the vacancy rate in Northern Ireland remains the highest of any area across the UK and significantly higher than the UK average of 8.9%," she said. "The rate strengthened over the quarter from 15.2% in October, but caution is needed in reading too much into this as it reflects short term occupier demand in the lead-up to Christmas."