Footfall figures across the UK's high streets slowly crept up last week but the threat to the retail sector in the wake of lockdown is still visible by the shuttered fronts of many retail outlets still to reopen here.
Last week, footfall in NI grew at a quicker rate than elsewhere in the UK, with growth of 9.8% compared to the previous week. It signalled promising shoots of recovery for the sector. But there remains concern with some retailers yet to reopen following lockdown, particularly in smaller towns.
In Belfast, some high street brands have bowed out under pressure with Tesco announcing at the weekend that it is to close its Metro store on Royal Avenue within the next year.
Meanwhile the future for Debenhams, on the same street, also looks bleak as the company seeks a new buyer in a last ditch attempt to avoid going into liquidation.
The demise of stationery giant Eason's Northern Ireland stores in recent weeks will leave a total of seven empty spaces around the province and a particularly prominent gap on Donegall Place - not far from Tesco Metro's soon-to-be-vacated unit.
Some promiment voices in the sector have argued that if face masks become compulsory in shops here, it could make matters worse. Glyn Roberts of Retail NI said the move "could threaten our very fragile high street recovery, and drive people into the arms of Amazon". The Executive is to consider making face coverings compulsory in shops from August 20, if voluntary take-up of them by then is not strong enough.
In Ballymena, newsagent Eugene Diamond said he's concerned about the town's shop vacancy rate. "I've noticed a number of national stores have not reopened in Ballymena including Peacocks, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Greggs and two Carphone Warehouse stores. It's not looking good this far into the reopening of normality.
"Nobody seems to have noticed and these are high profile businesses that, prior to lockdown, were trading successfully so why are they waiting it out?"
Mr Diamond urged Ballymena Chamber to "use its voice" to revive the town. "We hear city chambers speaking out loud, but what about those smaller towns? We need a voice locally and recognition that every town centre needs help."
SDLP councillor Eugene Reid, also president of Ballymena Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said it was doing "everything in our power". "Our council is leading a town centre recovery group, which was set up early on in the crisis to ensure we could give our full support to our retailers and traders across Mid and East Antrim. Our strong relationships with our businesses means they are shaping the local recovery and our pathway back to normality."
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said it was too early to deduce that unopened shops will remain permanently closed. He said the focus should now be on growing footfall to the high street, which will be helped by the Executive's announcement of an £11m Covid High Street Revitalisation Fund yesterday.
"Some retailers haven't reopened because they're waiting for footfall to increase," said Mr Connolly. "The public aren't coming back in their numbers and retailers are being somewhat cautious about opening all the stores in their estates and that's something we're going to have to work very hard on over the next while, to get consumers onto the high street to make reopening profitable."
Mr Connolly said the £11m fund from the Department of Communities (£10m), with £1m from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), was a "good progressive start" but warned more could be needed.
"What is needed is directly proportionate to the need to encourage people back. "If we're not up to better levels of footfall, or increased spend, we will need more money and if we do see consumers voting with their feet, less will be needed but right now it's a start a good progressive start."
In Belfast, new Belfast Chamber president Michael Stewart has urged the Executive to meet stakeholders to form a taskforce to plot the recovery of Belfast city centre, and other centres around NI.
Colm Shannon, chief executive of Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade, said Halloween and Christmas will be the real tests for when the extent of recovery can be assessed.
He said: "Clearly Covid-19 has had a direct impact on the level of trade. The majority of our businesses have reopened. The impact on trade has been mixed. While some have traded close to last year's figures, the average is around 70% of last year's turn over. The autumn and the run up to Christmas will be vital for many retailers and we hope that confidence will return to the High Street."
Mr Connolly added: "There is a time frame and we need those stores that haven't opened to be open by October, because that's the beginning of our golden quarter, when we do the majority of our business."