We need shoppers to support our retailers at this difficult time
Yesterday, I had the privilege to go to the business recovery meeting organised by Belfast City Council and hear the stories of some of the businesses that have been affected by the Primark fire, by closure, by the cordon and by the drop of shopper footfall.
There was a real sense of shock and frustration in the room and an expectation of some good news.
There have also been tales of adversity bringing out the best in people, from the job agencies who offered to find employment for those whose jobs have been displaced, to those who brought cups of tea and snacks to those immediately affected.
This is the real Belfast spirit.
Then we were told the bombshell news that the cordon around the fire and surrounding buildings would be in place for the next four months. There were gasps of disbelief followed quite quickly by anger. And these traders from multiples to independents were completely valid in their feelings of loss and anxiety.
The news of four months of cordons is simply devastating for this part of the city centre. One trader told me that his footfall had dropped by 52% since last week and he does not expect the picture to get any better in the medium-term. This fire was not simply a tragedy for Primark and the 360 employees who work there but also for the surrounding area.
The city centre has an eclectic mix of retail and there is a truly symbiotic nature to the footfall here. This risks creating a seismic shift of footfall away from the area in the run up to what should be the busiest time of the year.
December is the most important month of year for retailers with 12.5% of all purchases made.
Purchases which sustain the retailers at the often lean start of each new year. To put it bluntly this could be make or break for some retailers.
While Belfast City Council has done some sterling work in the past week, there is more that needs done to allow businesses to function and to draw people back.
We fully understand that safety must always be a priority but we need a way to provide safe access to shops. But most of all we need shoppers to show their support by continuing to visit these stores.
The message is simple, Belfast city centre is still open for business and needs your support.
Aodhan Connolly is director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium