Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland retail sector in worse shape than any other UK region with 7.3% drop-off in footfall

By Margaret Canning

The retail sector in Northern Ireland is facing worse challenges than that in any other UK region, it's been claimed.

Information body Springboard said footfall in Northern Ireland's shops saw a sharp fall of 7.3% during April - the province's worst performance since 2015.

As nationwide retailers like House of Fraser and Carpetright plan store closures which could affect Northern Ireland, the province remained the UK region hardest-hit for declining retail footfall.

The rate of decline in April was three times steeper than that in March - and at 14.2% the province's vacancy rate for shops was around 5% higher than the UK average.

High streets and retail parks in the province both saw declines in visitors of nearly 8%, while shopping centre visits were down by 5.6%.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said: "It's getting more challenging in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK.

"Northern Ireland has finished bottom of the league table once again with a decrease in shopper footfall last month of 7%, the poorest performance in two and a half years.

"However, some of this drop can be attributed to inclement weather and the timing of the Easter holidays, as well as the continued shift to online shopping."

"We have always had a more volatile market here, so that when we have drops, they are much more tangible than elsewhere in the UK - though when we have rises, they are sharper."

But he said a slight decline in the shop vacancy rate, from 14.3% in January to 14.2% in April was a positive sign. "We're on a steady trajectory downwards but it's still taking too long, and there's still a 5% gap between our vacancy rate and the UK average."

In recent months, retailers such as Carpetright, which has nine stores in Northern Ireland, have announced they will close stores.

Carpetright will shut 81 stores in total and plans to seek rent reductions on another 113 as it enters a Company Voluntary Arrangement. Its profits have taken a battering from soaring costs, online competition and a slowdown in consumer spending.

And store closures have also resulted after retailers Maplin and Toys R Us, which have eight stores in total here, went into administration.

House of Fraser, which has one store in Northern Ireland, anchoring Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Belfast, has also indicated it will shut some of its 59 stores around the UK.

C.banner, the Chinese retailer behind Hamleys, has taken a majority ownership of the struggling department store chain, and announced it will oversee a sweeping store closure programme.

On Friday House of Fraser revealed it had slumped to a £44m loss during 2017.

Diane Werhle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said the figures suggested people were spending more money on leisure than shopping.

"Our in-store footfall trackers demonstrate that hospitality outlets lost proportionately less footfall than bricks and mortar destinations generally," she said.

"So it is clear retail trading is doubly challenged by a thrifty consumer in concert with a continuing predisposition towards leisure rather than retail spend."

Belfast Telegraph

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