It may be the season for shoppers, but this Christmas marks the end of an uncertain year for retailers in Waterford city centre.
After a prolonged lack of investment and severe weather coming to bear on businesses, Waterford is preparing for major developments in the form of €350 million, 40,000sq m retail and office space on North Quay.
"We had a very difficult first quarter," says Glenn Sheridan of Waterford Business Group, a collection of city firms.
Several stores lost up to four days due to snow and Storm Emma closures. “March is a tough month anyway, so the first quarter was very difficult, and a lot of retail in Waterford is still recovering from then,” he said.
While the summer heatwave boosted trade for clothing outlets in the city centre, it left restaurants struggling and saw some moving out of the city.
The change in seasons hasn’t meant easier trading conditions, with the city’s annual Christmas festival, Winterval, having to stop operating on Black Friday and for Storm Deirdre on one of the biggest shopping Saturdays in December .
While footfall has increased by about 50 per cent since 2012, it is still at only half its estimated capacity. It also seems locals are spending much money outside the region.
Waterford Business Group believes a more diverse retail mix would drive this footfall up. “The M9 moves two ways,” says Mr Sheridan.
He says there was “huge leakage” from the region. Many in the west of the county are going to Dungarvan and Cork to shop. Others are going to Dundrum, Kildare Village, Kilkenny and Clonmel. Mr Sheridan said the big-name retailers that were needed in any urban centre were not coming to Waterford.
But he noted that large retailers were not the “be-all and end-all”, as visitors from Dublin may instead be looking for independent shops and something a bit different.
Georgian tea rooms
Such independent businesses include Parlour Vintage Tea Rooms on Great George’s Street, based in a large, high-ceiling Georgian building dating from 1795.
Sarah Jane Hanton’s cafe is full of antique furniture, and she see this as a way of setting it apart from other coffee shops . “Waterford has plenty of cafes, but the building lends itself so well to creating a visual experience. It can take you back. It’s a really joyful experience for a lot of people.”
The city has seen improvements in recent years in the commercial vacancy rates, something the council's City Centre Management Group has focused on.
Michael Street was at 50 per cent vacancy but the ground floor units are now all occupied. According to a recent report by City Centre Management Group, the core vacancy rate has fallen from 28.7 per cent in 2012 to 9.75 per cent.
A number of previously empty units in key areas, such as Arundel Square and City Square shopping centre, have seen brand names move into the premises.
One of City Centre Management Group's members, Cllr Eddie Mulligan of Fianna Fáil, claims there is still much cause for concern and described the local economy as "very fragile".
Glenn Sheridan believes more marketing of the city is required. “When Waterford was Ireland’s oldest city, we were celebrating our 1,000th birthday, but I think we were the only ones who knew that. There’s not enough about Waterford as a destination.”