The number of high street shoppers in Northern Ireland slumped last month amid stiff competition from the internet and click and collect retailers, research showed.
Totals were two per cent down on a year ago and followed a marginal increase at the end of last year, according to the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC).
The vacancy rate slightly improved but footfall levels were volatile.
Diane Wehrle, Retail Insights Director at Springboard, said: “Without doubt this is due to both the challenge of the internet and the convenience of out-of-town locations for click-and-collect as they offer plentiful, accessible parking that is free of charge.”
Numbers dropped by three percentage points to a fall of 2.4 per cent in January compared with an increase of 1.4 per cent in December.
Director of the consortium Aodhan Connolly said: “Today’s footfall figures are an unfortunate start to 2015, after what was a robust and positive year as a whole last year.
“The decline in shopper numbers in January serves to underline the need for greater partnership working between town centres, local authorities and the Executive and a laser-like focus on delivering the support the high street needs to keep drawing in Northern Ireland’s consumers.”
Electrical retailer Currys has confirmed it is to close its Belfast city centre branch, the latest in a series of major names to do so.
Mr Connolly added: “Retailers will take some small comfort from the fact that the vacancy rate continues to decline.
“However, it remains stubbornly high.
“It’s a continuing reminder that the policy mix still isn’t quite right.”
Criona Collins, Director of Retail at commercial agents Lambert Smith Hampton said: “While the latest footfall figures show a slight drop in shopper numbers from last year, recent times have seen several notable improvements for the retail sector.”
“A brighter economic backdrop, increased consumer confidence and the availability of more attractive lease terms has supported a rise in retailer activity. The vacancy rate in Northern Ireland was 16.3 per cent, marginally improved from the previous quarter.”