Belfast Chamber survey reveals genuine concern for future of many city centre businesses

A survey of members by Belfast Chamber has revealed real worries for the future of many businesses based in the city centre.  The organisation, which represents over 500 businesses in Belfast, says that genuine concern exists about the scale of job losses and business closures that could still come and what that means for the city centre in the long term.

Headline results from the survey showed:


  • TURNOVER – Just short of 30% of businesses have experienced a more than a 50% decrease in turnover since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. 35% of businesses fear a worse than 30% drop in sales over the next 6 months


  • FOOTFALL – 50% say that footfall has more than halved


  • STAFF/OFFICES – Only 5% of office based workers are back full time 35% still working from home all the time. 40% of businesses don’t anticipate a full return to the office until the end of 2020 with almost ¼ reporting that it’ll be early 2021Concerns about staff safety (28%), current Executive guidance (24%) and childcare (24%) all cited as the biggest barriers to a return

Commenting on the survey’s findings, Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said, “Our survey has once again revealed the serious and sustained impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had – and continues to have – on the Belfast economy.

It is positive that after seeing so much the city’s economy shutdown back in March, that only 4% of businesses remain closed but it is clear from these results that those who have reopened have done so in a very different environment than before COVID-19 struck.  Half of our members report that their footfall has more than halved and that is having a knock-on effect on turnover with nearly a third of respondents saying that sales have decreased by more than 50%.

A contributing factor to the drop in footfall is the absence of many office based workers with our survey showing that only 6% of office staff have returned to their desks full time and 2/3 of members saying that they don’t anticipate a complete return of staff to their offices until the end of this year or even into early 2021.

A prolonged drop in footfall will present major problems for many businesses in Belfast especially those in retail, hospitality and leisure and it is fair to say that these results represent a cause for genuine concern for the future of many businesses, jobs and the city centre itself.

Obviously, each individual business will need to decide on will need to decide when it is appropriate for their staff to come back into their offices.  The safety of staff is of paramount importance and this is reflected in the responses of many members to our survey.  The Executive’s current guidance on the matter is also cited as one of the biggest barriers to a return to the office. I have spoken with many members who have staff that want to return to the office for a whole host of reasons, whilst others who have a customer or client facing aspect to their work are keen to get back.  But they have stated clearly to me that the Executive’s guidance which remains at step 1 on their pathway to recovery.  We would encourage the Executive to move to step 3 on its pathway and permit a phased return to the office where this is safe and has been subject to the necessary risk assessments.

We have already witnessed some of the devastation that the coronavirus pandemic has brought on our city centre with closures of stores like DW and Eason’s and job losses at Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and many others. These survey results show that the situation is likely to get far worse before it gets better.  Achieving the safe return of office based workers to Belfast is an essential ingredient in the recovery of our city’s economy that will assist in maintaining jobs and ensure that Belfast remains an attractive place to visit and invest in when the pandemic has passed”.

Mr Hamilton concluded, “These survey results should also prompt our Executive to establish its proposed High Streets Task Force as soon as possible and also consider how they can continue to support businesses in our city and town centres”.