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Last-minute shoppers bring festive cheer to high street

Multiples and indies report strong sales in run-up to Christmas, but remain cautious about 2012.

Retailers said consumers pushing the boat out at the last minute before Christmas led to positive festive trading, but have warned of a tough climate on the high street in the coming months.

Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, leading to an extra full day’s trading compared with last year, and an increase in online sales is thought to have contributed to what some retailers described as a “record Christmas”.

This week, high street bellwether John Lewis described Christmas as “outstanding”, with fashion sales up 10.3% in the five weeks to December 31.

Aurora Fashions, parent company of the Oasis, Coast and Warehouse chains, also said it enjoyed strong trade in the five-week pre-Christmas period, reporting a 13% increase in like-for-like sales and a 9.2% rise in gross profits.

Jane McNally, chief executive of Irisa Group, which owns womenswear chains including Alexon, Kaliko, Eastex, Minuet Petite and Ann Harvey, agreed that trade in the week before Christmas was very strong.

“It definitely helped that Christmas Day fell on a Sunday,” she said. “It meant we got another day’s trading when people were buying last minute.”

Indies also reported a good performance over Christmas.

Michael Weedon, deputy chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), said indies had a long wait for shoppers to descend but in the end the shoppers had arrived. “A lot of people left it very late,” he said. “I’m not convinced they were waiting for Sales, but because they had taken the second half of the week off and planned to do it all then.”

Janine O’Keefe, owner of womenswear indie O’Keefe in Esher, Surrey, said: “We’ve had the most amazing time. We’ve hardly got any stock left at all. I am really glad I didn’t go on Sale early as our loyal customers were still buying at full price right up to Christmas.”

Online sales also performed well for retailers over the period. At John Lewis, managing director Andy Street said: “The strength of our online operation was very much in evidence.”

Mike Shearwood, chief executive of Aurora Fashions, said: “While the environment continued to be challenging with store footfall down on last year, Aurora saw a significant increase in online sales.”

Simon Poole, managing director of young fashion brand Luke, said in December, online sales were up about 20% year on year.

However, retailers agreed that the week between Christmas and New Year was not quite as successful, and all remain extremely cautious about the outlook for the year ahead.

“We still had a good week,” said Bartle. “But it wasn’t quite as good as the week before. I think New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday didn’t help because it made people more inclined to stay at home.”

McNally said: “People pushed the boat out at the very last minute, but I think everyone is going to see quite a tough start to the New Year.

“I think we will see a lot more promotions and discounting, and we could see trade going back to November levels.”

“I want to remain cautiously optimistic about this year,” said Bartle. “But I think the high street will see some more casualties before too long.”

Ilyas Patel, managing director of northwest indie mini-chain Duffer Menswear, said he expected January and February to be difficult as people cut back after Christmas.

Xmas sales unwrapped

  • Next’s sales rose 3.1% between August 1 and December 24. Next Directory sales surged 16.9%, as store sales dropped 2.7%
  • John Lewis’s fashion sales rose 10.3% in the five weeks to December 31. Total sales for the period were £596m
  • A record £1.3m was spent in Selfridges’ first hour of trading on Boxing Day
  • The number of high street bargain hunters on Boxing Day was 21% higher than last year, according to Experian
  • M-commerce sales accounted for 15.93% of online Boxing Day sales – a 275% increase on 2010
  • The number of shoppers on New Year’s Day fell 25.3% on last year, according to provisional figures from Experian Footfall

Readers' comments (1)

  • December has been the best month so far since the launch of our on-line shop the busiest time peaked between Boxing Day until the 2nd January. We are hoping that with the arrival of early SS2012 collections that we will have a busy first quarter on-line in 2012.

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