Sales prices for shops along main streets have almost returned to levels seen during the 1997 property peak, suggesting the retail property sector is picking up strongly. Realtors expect prices for retail space to rise 20 per cent next year as investors rush into the market, lured by robust spending by Hong Kong and mainland shoppers. Illustrating the buying trend is the sale of a 1,320 sq ft shop in the Sim City shopping centre - notorious for selling pirated VCDs - in Shantung Street, Mongkok. The shop was sold for $95 million, or $71,969 per square foot, last month. The price was 6.7 per cent higher than its $89 million sale recorded in December 1996, said Midland Realty marketing manager Tommy Lai. Another buyer recently paid $44.8 million for two shops, covering a gross floor area of 1,650 sq ft, in Haiphong Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. The price was $10 million higher than its previous sale in March 1996. Mr Lai said the transactions could suggest early signs of a recovering market for retail property. According to Centaline Property Agency, 2,179 properties changed hands in the first 11 months - the highest volume since 1997. There were 5,202 deals recorded in 1997. Francis Li, an executive director of DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, said the influx of mainland individual travellers and other positive factors would boost sentiment, with retail property prices rising as much as 20 per cent next year.