Late deliveries and weak footfall as kids headed back to school have led to a soft start to the autumn season, splitting the high street over the best strategy to drive spend.
The start of September brought a surprise drop-off in trade after a strong August when, according to the British Retail Consortium, clothing and footwear sales jumped on the previous year. Last week, footfall fell 2.4% against the previous week and was flat on the same week last year, according to Experian, which counts shopper numbers.
One multiple womenswear retail chief said: “Last week was tougher than we anticipated. It started strong and then I am not sure what happened. It was partly weather-related and back to school-related. Some retailers have been slow to adopt autumn ranges.” The source continued: “Coming out of the market crash, when manufacturing production dropped back, we are getting product slippage. People are struggling to deliver.”
Tony Brown, chief executive of department store chain Beales, said: “September has started quite soft. There was a really big drop from last Wednesday [a week ago] onwards. New season is in, the temperature was not that different from a year ago. You can’t blame the weather.”
However, others said they were unconcerned by the dip in sales, and pointed out that August sales were inflated by back to school and promotional activity and had been skewed due to soft comparisons from 2009. In addition, womenswear sales actually fell on the previous year.
A very senior figure at Marks & Spencer added: “Trading was down on last year on Thursday and Friday [a week ago] - last year the weather was poorer and the schools went back in different phasing - but it seems to have recovered on Sunday so we are just regarding it as a blip. The product is right for autumn 10.”
Retailers added that in contrast to slow overall sales, those who had bought into key autumn looks in August had seen some items fly including Burberry-inspired aviator jackets, shearling items, the camel trend and ankle boots.
Fast-fashion chain New Look’s design director Barbara Horspool said everyone was “waiting for autumn to kick in” but that she was confident in terms of trends. She said: “The demand for black lace-up ankle boots has been huge. It looks like it’s going to be a fantastic fashion season. We are waiting to see how much consumer confidence builds.”
Nicky Dulieu, chief executive of womenswear chain Hobbs, said she had bought into more transitional stock and that sales of camel coats and animal-print pieces had been strong.
Tim Bettley, managing director of value chain Peacocks, said: “Ankle boots and fine, embellished knitwear are selling really well.”
Meanwhile, Debenhams sent shockwaves through the sector this week by launching a four-day Sale Spectacular on new season stock. However, it is understood the Sale comprises the same level of promotional activity as it ran last year.
The Sale, which runs until tomorrow, offers 25% off all lines including its Designers At range and concessions including Oasis, Dorothy Perkins, Eastex, Planet, Wallis, Levi’s, Lee and Dune. Last September Debenhams put its discount efforts into categories offering money-off deals on coats and boots.
One Debenhams concessionaire said it was doubtful many retailers would follow its lead at this point in the season: “There isn’t the appetite for people to match it but if it’s highly successful, they may do.”
Another source added: “They [Debenhams] are trying to attract footfall. If it [discounting] is happening this early in the season then there is a lot more to come. Their customer will expect it. It is a dangerous move.”
However, Brown added: “If trade continues in the same vein as last week, people will think about more [promotional activity]. We have all got stock that we need to turn into cash.”