The local high street bucked UK trends with a 4.1% rise in footfall for December, including a "spectacular" showing in Belfast, a report said today.
It was the only UK region to report a rise in high street footfall. But the survey by data service Springboard said shopping centre footfall was down 3.7% year on year.
December marked the third month of growth in footfall here.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the survey was a "great boost" and meant that footfall had risen for seven of the last 12 months.
But he said the retail sector would still benefit from an Executive at Stormont, which could resolve concerns on issues such as business rates and the apprenticeship levy.
"We are falling behind the rest of the UK because we have no Assembly or Executive which is making us less competitive now and for future investment. We would be a better place for business in 2019 if we had an Executive to take the bold decisions needed to allow us to sustain and grow."
He said last month had started slowly but shoppers had gone on to make the most of pre-Christmas offers, particularly in Belfast where separate figures showed the city enjoyed a 37.8% increase in year-on-year footfall for the week beginning December 24.
Mr Connolly said Belfast may have benefited from a campaign calling for support for retailers after the devastating fire at Primark at the end of August. A cordon was put in place as a result of the blaze, and while it has been reduced in size, Mr Connolly said some traders just outside the cordon could still be feeling the pain.
"As it's been a few months since the Bank Buildings fire it does not garner as many headlines, but support is needed more than ever for the businesses in the cordon quarter. January to March are traditionally lean months even in good years so this trading period needs to be especially good in 2019," he said.
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said the decline in shopping centre footfall was in line with a fall of 3.8% across the UK.
She said shopping centres tended to be dominated by big-name retailers, which had introduced pre-Christmas discounting. "If nothing else is learnt from December 2018, it is that discounting is severely eroding the strength of Christmas as a major trading period," she said.