Undoubtedly this will be a year many will be glad to see the back of. But as 2016 draws to a close, the outlook for the Northern Ireland retail market remains buoyant, despite the tumultuous 12 months that have passed. Brexit headwinds predicted during the summer have not been as severe as once thought and this year the retail market has continued the improvements seen throughout 2015, with vacancy rates continuing to drop.
As retailers take new space, driven by rebased occupancy costs, consumer confidence and the unanticipated post-referendum vote silver lining of the Euro/Pound exchange rate has combined to strengthen the Belfast retail market.
The capital has continued to show improvement and has experienced steady levels of demand for prime space, that has driven competition and rents. There have been several new faces on the Belfast high street this year, including Stradivarius, Sostrene Green, Kiko Milano and Greggs, to name but a few, and the effect of these new entrants has been a notable drop in prime vacancy rates by around 2 per cent to 10.5 per cent.
The good news for the retail market isn't just confined to Belfast either. Outside the city we're starting to see increased retailer activity with schemes such as Abbeycentre, Bloomfield shopping centre and Ards shopping centre agreeing multiple lettings to recognised brands and new entrants alike.
Cross-border shoppers are flocking to Newry, Enniskillen and Derry in their droves, attracted by the weak pound, with footfall in these towns increasing dramatically since the Brexit vote.
This year investors haven't been slow to spot the opportunities across the province and a number of major investments in retail development have commenced throughout the year, with investors like Parker Green, Turkington, Lotus Group, New River and Ellandi leading the charge.
Ellandi, which owns shopping centres including Bloomfield in Bangor, has been particularly impressed with what it calls “the sustainable amount of retail in Northern Ireland” and the investment company is eyeing the north ahead of other regions of the UK that are difficult to invest in because of an over-abundance of out-of-town retail. Sustainability is the buzz word on investors' lips and, right now, Northern Ireland is considered a prime location.
And it's not only retail investors who are sounding upbeat as we close out 2016. Only last week, Belfast City Council chief executive Suzanne Wylie talked about wanting to increase the retail offer and maximise the tourism value. She said she wanted tourism spend to be £1 billion over the next 10 years, when talking about the aims of the council's investment and regeneration strategy.
Combine these strong words with the investment fund worth just under £20m - created by the council to help with its plans, to incentivise the market and to help achieve its goal of a "coherent plan" for regenerating the whole of the city - and the prospects for Belfast's retail market look positive.
For Northern Ireland as a whole, the revitalised drive to increase tourism will provide increased footfall and pounds in traders' pockets, so hopefully the joined-up approach and synergy between these sectors will continue to thrive.
All of this points towards steady improvement in our retail market. Good retail space in Belfast's prime spots will be at a premium and this will see prime rents increase from the current level of around £130 per square foot. Meanwhile, activity in the regional towns will increase, with some of the better schemes and high streets beginning to fill up, particularly the border towns.