Outlook mixed for Northern Ireland small retailers after tough Christmas
Independent retailers here are trying to stay buoyant after a challenging Christmas period for the sector.
Jeweller Argento, one of our most successful home-grown chains, reported a 5% dip in sales, while Ballymena town centre has lost two businesses in the first week of 2019.
Montgomery's restaurant and O'Briens sandwich shop in Fairhill Shopping Centre closed over the weekend.
Independent fashion store Gerry Weber on Belfast's Lisburn Road will also close at the end of this month.
It has been a mixed story for independent traders.
The strength of the euro against the pound offered a much-needed Christmas boost in border retail hubs such as Newry.
And while the Primark fire at the end of August initially devastated trade in parts of Belfast city centre, figures from the council suggest footfall bounced back strongly over Christmas week.
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Pete Boyle of Argento was among the retailers forced to close after being caught within the cordon thrown around Bank Buildings in the wake of the major blaze.
But he said the decision to open another temporary jewellery store in the city's Cornmarket resulted in the business matching its 2017 Christmas performance in Belfast.
However, he added there had been a lull in other areas, with trade down 5% overall in the festive period. Argento runs 26 stores here.
"We were down slightly. But in light of what was going on in the overall retail market, I think we performed better than most," he said.
"In Belfast we came back with two stores trading in December and we managed to meet last year's numbers.
"Overall, we're very pleased, and I think our Northern Ireland stores performed a little bit better than those in the rest of the UK."
Argento's main Belfast store on Royal Avenue eventually re-opened in early December, with the Cornmarket pop-up closing on Christmas Eve.
Ian Dixon, who runs his family's department store in Coleraine, revealed the independent fashion retailer had been in a period of downsizing.
After selling off its business in Newtownards, it will shut its Gerry Weber outlet in south Belfast.
"I've decided to concentrate on Coleraine for my last lot of years," he said.
"The lease is at an end and I'm at a stage in my life where I wouldn't be signing new leases."
Managing director Mr Dixon took over the business from his parents Joan and Harold.
"It's about making the business more manageable," he added. "We're in our late 50s and there's no one coming after us."
Given the tough retail climate, Coleraine town centre still boasts a strong selection of family-owned businesses.
Unlike many other regional towns, it enjoys a major influx of shoppers during the summer months owing to its proximity to the north coast.
He added: "Every year is tough now in retail. If you were looking back at 10 years ago, you would now be jumping up and down to get those figures.
"Like any town, we have had challenges in terms of footfall, but Christmas was good."
On the border, the strength of the euro gave a welcome boost to the independents.
Although, last week Warrenpoint clothes retailer E O'Hare's announced it was closing after 73 years.
Jack Murphy, who runs a family jewellers in Newry, said traders in the city had been enjoying a euro bonus.
"Overall, we were 9% up for December 2018 against December 2017, which, in the face of what has been happening, was quite good," he said. Mr Murphy added the exchange rate had simply represented "the cream" on the efforts his staff had put in over the year.
"The 12-month figure for 2018 is slightly higher than that, so the hard work and dedication is paying off," he said.
"We've had a good year. While there were dips, we picked it up either the month before or month after."
Andrew Webb from business advisers Baker Tilly Mooney Moore said the malaise affecting the high street applied to the independents as much as the larger stores.
"The shift to online retail (where, encouragingly, many independents are thriving) and a general consumer wariness is impacting on retail in general," he added.
The economist said British Independent Retailers Association data showed that while openings by independents had increased, a record number of independent retailers were forced to close in the first half of 2018.
Mr Webb said: "It is a period of significant churn. Independents are crucial to ensuring we have a diverse and characterful retail environment and not just the same shops as everywhere else.
"Shopping local retains more economic impact within the local economy, so we should support our independents."
Argento's percentage dip in trade over the recent Christmas sales period in its Northern Ireland shops