Figures for December's footfall in the province's stores were 8.7% lower than a year ago, it has been revealed.NI's figures were also down on the 6.3% decline last November, making it the region's fifth consecutive drop.December saw the UK average of shopper numbers fall by 2.4%.The UK's high streets also reported a decrease, down 3.7%, and over three months reported a drop in footfall of 3.8%, which is the worst dip since August 2012.In the coming weeks we will be calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to step up to the challenge of ensuring not just the survival but the growth of the retail sector.Aodhán Connolly, NI Retail ConsortiumHowever, with the exception of NI, the South West (-3.4%) and Wales (-3.8%), all regions reported figures above the UK average.Footfall in out-of-town locations and shopping centres did not escape the plunging shopper numbers, with a 1.2% and 1.8% decrease respectively across a three month period.Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said that although disposable incomes are feeling the squeeze across the UK, budgets in Northern Ireland are under the greatest pressure.He said that there are weighty tasks in the year ahead to build and maintain confidence among customers and retailers."It's deeply concerning to see that Northern Ireland suffered by far the steepest drop in footfall in December, especially after some tentative signs that growth was starting to go the other direction in November."There are some other factors at play - we saw in last week's sales figures that multichannel was the story of the season, so increased online browsing and buying and use of services like click and collect has undoubtedly filtered through to these figures," he said."We also saw a last minute shopping surge as expected, as many people took the weekdays leading up to Christmas off and used them to finalise their festive spending.CHAR(13) + CHAR(10) CHAR(13) + CHAR(10)"However what is very clear, with Northern Ireland suffering the worst drop in footfall across the UK and our vacancy rates still being double the national average at one in five shops lying empty, there has never been a more important time for government to work with retailers to encourage consumer confidence and bolster a sector which accounts for one in ten jobs in Northern Ireland, he added.Glyn Roberts, of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, described the figures as "disappointing.""An 8.7% decline is a major cause for concern and we are surprised as a number of our members had reported an increase in footfall and sales in December."He said that the Executive should organise a major conference to bring together international experts in retail and regeneration to identify how other towns and cities across the world have successfully dealt with footfall problems.