Aodhán Connolly, Director, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium
There was an unsettling sense of déjà vu when the latest restrictions on households meeting were announced. After a summer when it, slowly, felt as if Northern Ireland was reopening it was an unpleasant reminder coronavirus is still present and not yet beaten. The feeling of the world closing down a little bit is something we are all adjusting to again.
However, things are not the same as March. We have all learnt a lot more about how to live with the virus – both organisations and people. The retail industry demonstrates this as well as any. At the start of the national lockdown most shops were closed to help prevent the spread of the virus – whilst those who remained open had to bring in new measures to keep workers and customers safe.
The last few months have seen all of our lives change immensely in response to coronavirus. Everyone has adapted to new rules and restrictions and ways of living; which has hugely impacted on how and where we shop. The data is clear. Retailers and consumers flocked online, with sales peaking at over 65 percent.
Obviously, the lockdown was an extreme situation, but it appears to have had a lasting legacy. Many customers are less willing, or less able, to come out and shop. That’s driven an enormous shift in the way retailers operate. Two-fifths of non-food shopping is now done online. The biggest percentage rise has been in grocery, with supermarkets doubling their capacity for home delivery over the last few months. That’s terribly convenient for those who would rather have the weekly groceries arrive on a Saturday morning. For people who are unable to come into shops, because they are shielding or vulnerable, it can be a lifeline.
But this is not a process begun by Covid, rather the pandemic has just accelerated this change which had been underway since the last recession in 2008. Let’s be very clear about this, retail is going to contract more. Retailers have been reducing shop space and shop numbers. And whilst it’s horrible to see retail job losses, those roles which remain – and the retail jobs of the future – are likely to be higher skilled and more engaging.
For the future of the high street, we need our cities and towns to be seen as destinations. We need to get people to spend their time as well as their money and that means not complaining that there are too many shops but looking at why other sectors that need to be represented are not there. There must be a good mix of retail, office space, hospitality and leisure and a public realm that means those spaces are warm, friendly, safe, accessible and inviting. And we must also not be afraid to look outside the norm for NI. We have been adverse to build communities in our town and city centres but the NIRC has been a strong advocate for Living Over The Shops schemes, but that takes ambition, proper planning and capital grants to ease that transition.
It is clear we need to start planning now for the future of our high streets and that means a joined-up approach across industries and the various levels of Government. Not only planning, but delivering as well. On 6 August, the NI Executive announced that it was instituting a High Streets Task Force to help the fight back from Covid 19. Here we are 8 weeks later and there have been no meetings and not even a terms of reference. That is not good enough.
We also need:
• Both the NI and UK Governments to take steps to reignite consumer confidence and entice shoppers back to the High Street.
• This should include a plan for the safe return of office workers, students, and tourists, short-term economic stimulus (through targeted tax cuts or cash payments), and practical transport solutions which could include temporarily abolishing town centre parking charges particularly in the run up to festive trading.
• A more coherent and less piecemeal approach to public policy towards town centres. Policies like costly business rates and restrictive and costly parking hamper efforts to revitalise town centres.
• A Town Centres Fund on a sustained basis, including permitting Business Improvement Districts to access it.
• An early commitment from the NI Government to bring forward a relief or taper to prevent 100% re-instatement of retail business rates in April 2021.
• It’s worth noting the pre-existing issues affecting the industry remain challenging. Similarly, having seen the impact of the first lockdown on retailers, if there is a second wave in the crucial Christmas trading period then that could be catastrophic for the industry.
Right now, things are tough for retailers, but this industry is resourceful and resilient. Shopping is changing, but the industry will remain an essential part of Northern Ireland’s economy, and we have a key role to play in the economic recovery. But to do that we need support and some bold decisions from our Executive.
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