Editor's Viewpoint: City retailers deserved their Christmas cheer
The turnaround in the fortunes of Belfast's city centre traders at Christmas was remarkable. In the months leading up to the most valuable trading period of the year after the disastrous Primark fire on August 28, there was a palpable sense of gloom throughout the main shopping area as footfall fell along with expectations.
Yet, as our exclusive story today reveals, Christmas may have come late to the beleaguered traders but it came in spades, with the number of customers up almost 40% on the same week beginning on December 24 the previous year.
This huge influx of shoppers was partly because of the early sales put on by retailers - Northern Ireland customers can readily identify a bargain - but also a sign of the resilience of the citizens who have faced much harder times in the past and still come up trumps.
Credit must also go to the co-ordinated efforts of retailers, Belfast City Council and central government to encourage shoppers to return to the city centre. The opening of the 'tunnel' linking both parts of the city centre was a positive signal that this pivotal shopping area would not be allowed to wither.
Primark also played its part in reopening part of its store and while the restoration of the historic Bank Buildings will be a longer term project, the company's decision to open a second store in the city centre is another vote of confidence for that area.
The increase in customers in Belfast also helped to provide a healthier return for retailers elsewhere in Northern Ireland, where footfall was up just over 22%. When one considers that the UK experienced a slim 2.8% increase in footfall over the Christmas period it can be seen how magnificently shoppers here bucked the national trend.
But to borrow a phrase, increased sales cannot just be for Christmas. Retailers need our support the whole year round. The businesses know they have the goodwill of shoppers but they want value for money in return. That way everyone is a winner.
It is also time for the authorities to take a detailed look at how High Streets can continue to be competitive with out-of-town retail parks in the race to attract customers.
The playing field needs to be levelled as retailing is a vital part of the local economy.
It should not take some near disaster to spur the authorities into action as they did so well in the run-up to Christmas.