All retailers are hoping for a big lift in trade from the Department for the Economy's retail voucher scheme. he Belfast Telegraph understands the GBP145m scheme - expected to give each over-18-year-old a GBP100 shopping voucher - will be launched around late summer/autumn. Online retail and betting shops will be excluded. The department says it's not yet ready to divulge the timing of the scheme, nor how much each voucher will be worth.
A spokesman said it's "under development by officials and good progress is being made to bring it to fruition". "The scheme will be launched at a time when it is safe and appropriate to stimulate demand and encourage the public to shop on the high street. Full details will be provided in due course."
The anticipated arrival of the scheme by the autumn is to be timed for when initial pent-up demand is spent - and could also provide a boost to spending if unemployment rises at the end of the government's furlough scheme, which is supporting the jobs of about 106,000 people. Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said there are many factors to consider in bringing town centre retail back to life. "It's not just about the reopening of non-essential retail and close contact services, but also how we get people back into offices and workplaces, and what date do we apply the high street voucher scheme?
"All of that is important for every town centre, regardless of size or location. "People should make a special effort to support local independents and local hospitality businesses. It's important that the voucher scheme is brought forward to support that."
He is optimistic that shoppers will return and that aspects of the lifestyle many of us adopted during the pandemic will stick. "One of the things we saw is that, because we have so many people working from home, there has been a stronger focus on supporting local businesses. "Especially when hospitality was open, people did support it and stay local.
"There is a big opportunity for those businesses to capture that and keep that trade." Mr Roberts thinks town centres will benefit from the NI Civil Service move to set up regional hubs in 10 locations outside Belfast, from Newry to Londonderry. Sites in Ballykelly and Downpatrick will be the first to open.
But he is braced for shop vacancies to rise in town centres. "There's no doubt we will have significant increases in the short term of dereliction from so many companies moving completely online. "But we need to slightly change the conversation. Instead of looking at them as failures of yesterday we should see them as new businesses of tomorrow," he added.
"Empty space will have a crucial role - how do we use that space to support the next generation of independent retail entrepreneurs?
"That will need a strong, coordinated approach with the councils and Executive."