Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland bargain hunters to spend £25m in Boxing Day sales - but warning of tough times ahead

Shoppers on the busy streets of Belfast
Shoppers on the busy streets of Belfast
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Northern Ireland shoppers are expected to spend £25million in the Boxing Day sales - but experts have warned that difficult times lie ahead for our high streets.

Today has traditionally been one of the biggest days for bargain hunters, but there has been a steady erosion in the number of people hitting the stores on December 26.

A surge in online shopping in recent years, and unprecedented pre-Christmas discounting, means today's takings will likely be more subdued.

Some sales were brought forward, with retailers slashing prices by up to 70% as early as last week.

In Belfast - which has suffered from the Primark fire - businesses will be hoping for a Boxing Day sales bonanza to boost their coffers.

Economist John Simpson predicted that Northern Ireland consumers will spend £25m today alone, while their counterparts elsewhere in the UK will part with around £1.1billion.

"The tradition is that pre-Christmas spending - with people looking after family and friends - is planned, whereas we only spend what we've got left over in the sales," he said.

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"But our local economy is already strained and after Christmas, I think there will be less money available for the end-of- season rush, so the post-Christmas spending will be much less buoyant than we usually expect in the Boxing Day sales."

But most agree that Boxing Day sales aren't the draw they were.

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly revealed that December accounts for around an eighth of annual sales.

He added that a busy month "could help tide retailers over a quiet January and February", meaning that "it could make or break a business".

"Boxing Day has traditionally been a strong day for shopping, but what we saw last year was that lots of shoppers opted to shop online rather than go into the shops on Boxing Day, so we wouldn't be surprised if that trend continues this year," Mr Connolly said.

Clothing and homeware giant Next - widely accepted as a barometer of the Boxing Day sales - should offer an insight into the public appetite for spending.

Its annual festive sale has become an unmissable sit-out for thousands across the UK, with queues expected across their 24 Northern Ireland stores ahead of the doors opening at 5am.

Some big names who already joined the scramble for sales last week - including House of Fraser and Debenhams - are expected to offer further half-price deals, as well as reductions in the region of 80%.

Boxing Day - like New Year's Day - was traditionally one of the biggest shopping events of the year, but in more recent years, the post-Christmas sales period has been affected by Black Friday.

Business and retail expert Professor Karise Hutchinson, who is based at Ulster University, warned that Northern Ireland is poised to suffer another festive sales hangover.

"Black Friday has a lot to answer for," she said. "On the one hand, it is good because it's a bit of a spike for retailers, but on the other hand, it's actually a problem for retailers because it starts a cycle of discounting that gets earlier each year. It's out of control."

Professor Hutchinson said consumers are becoming so used to discounts, they're reluctant to pay full price for anything, which creates a serious problem for traders down the line.

"The hefty pre-Christmas reductions on the high street in mid-December, coupled with this ongoing sales mentality, is already having a detrimental affect on businesses," she said.

"Black Friday and early discounting combined means Boxing Day is not going to offer people the radical savings it used to and therefore Boxing Day 2018 is probably going to be a bit of a damp squib".

She added: "Times are changing. There are currently too many shops on the high street. There is a lot of uncertainty over Brexit and I believe there is a tough January ahead."

Figures released last week suggested Belfast has been bouncing back after the devastating Primark fire on August 28.

Footfall for the week beginning December 10 was up 19% on the same period in 2017. Figures were also up 7% on the previous week.

Economist Andrew Webb, a director at Baker Tilly Mooney Moore, said the atmosphere at the weekend was "absolutely fantastic".

"Retailers, feeling the pressures from reduced footfall, consumers running out of steam and the threat from online, have blinked first and have started discounting heavily," he said.

"This isn't a new phenomenon, but the earlier sales results in Boxing Day no longer being the event it once was."

He added: "It's almost impossible to put a figure on what Boxing Day will mean for retailers in the city, but there are a lot of businesses relying on a pre and post-Christmas surge in sales to carry them through what has been an exceptionally tough 2018 and into what will be an uncertain 2019."

Belfast Telegraph