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Lack of a big shock brings a little calm

With total retail sales down 1.4% year-on-year, the British Retail Consortium said this week that December’s trading was “dreadful”. It’s not a statement to cheer us as we get into the swing of 2009 but then it won’t have come as a surprise, and clearly Christmas was more dreadful for some than others.

By now all the major players have posted their trading statements (see for more details) and by and large there were few great surprises. Those that were down (M&S, Debenhams and Next) still did better than expected and some retailers had a very merry time indeed, such as New Look and Republic. Of course all we know at present are top line sales figures, the full picture will emerge when we learn how profitable those sales were.

For some, though, December was worse than dreadful if such a thing is possible. Administrators were called into The Officers Club, USC, Adams Kids and Kate Kuba, for instance, over the festive period. The first two on that list were bought back in part or in whole by their management while Adams’ final fate is up in the air (though more than 100 stores have closed) and Kate Kuba has shut up shop completely.

Again though, there were no real surprises – in terms of the list, that is, the buy-backs weren’t necessarily expected. These were companies whose problems were exacerbated by the poor trading climate and not necessarily caused by it. And the same can be said for the biggest retail credit crunch victim so far, Woolworths. We’ll know when things have got truly dreadful when a business we’re not expecting falls victim.

Until then we can take some solace that the good companies are weathering the storm.

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