AS MANY as one in five shops are now vacant, with a greater rate of business failures over the past six months than at any time in the history of the State.
Evidence from trade groups revealed the past three months represent the worst trading performance for the Irish retail sector since the financial crisis erupted five years ago.
Retail vacancy rates have soared following a series of high-profile closures including HMV, GAME and Cork-based Flor Griffin.
NAMA, now one of the primary landlords in Irish city centres, has been urged to take steps to promote trade by offering rental incentives.
The vacancy rates now include:
• 10.6pc of shops empty in Dublin.
• 20pc of stores empty in Cork.
• 15pc of business and retail outlets vacant in Limerick.
• 18pc of stores empty in Athlone.
Irish Chambers of Commerce and Retail Excellence Ireland (REI) have now demanded urgent action by Irish councils and NAMA to tackle the retail haemorrhage.
REI and Irish Chambers are now meeting city managers in a bid to promote greater flexibility with commercial rates and enhanced business supports.
Traders are also pleading for "commercial reality" in terms of rents which, despite the recession, have not been reduced in many cases.
One of Ireland's hardest hit cities is Cork where, on one city centre street (Grand Parade) the vacancy rate is 25pc.
The average retail vacancy rate across the entire city centre is 20pc while the showcase retail area, Patrick Street, has a 12pc vacancy rate.
Last year the vacancy rate had declined, only to surge before Christmas.
Lord Mayor John Buttimer admitted that it poses a major challenge.
"Nobody wins with an empty premises and it also impacts on business and trading levels nearby," he said.
In Dublin, there is a huge contrast in vacancy rates which are as low as 2.5pc on prestigious locations such as Grafton Street and Henry Street. But they are as high as 24pc in areas of the north and south inner city.
In Limerick, commercial rates were cut in a bid to boost the retail sector. There are now 297 retail units in Limerick city centre with a current vacancy rate of 11pc although across the entire city the rate is 15pc.