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Business Analysis & Features

Christmas trading 2012: No cracker, or turkey either

The festive period is crucial for retailers, and the relatively good news is it won't be any worse than the rest of the year

Now that the dust has settled on the high street's "super Thursday", when a host of chains posted results, retailers get down to the serious business of trading through the "golden quarter" covering Christmas.

This is the three-month period when most retailers deliver about 40 per cent of their annual profits, but for toy and entertainment chains it can be even higher.

Sadly, this Christmas could be make or break for some struggling chains. For example, JJB Sports is unlikely to make it through the autumn unless it is sold, which is expected to involve a restructuring of its finances and stores.

The problem for both ailing and profitable chains is that they are unlikely to get any help from an uptick in consumer spending.

Richard Hyman, the strategic retail adviser to Deloitte, the accountancy firm, said: "It is going to be a very tough Christmas. There is no credible evidence from my perspective that things are getting better or are going to get better anytime soon."

Crucially, however, retailers and industry experts are not expecting trading to deteriorate in coming months.

Lord Wolfson, the chief executive of Next, the fashion and homewares retailer, said: "I suspect it [Christmas] will be much the same as the rest of the year. I cannot see why the consumer economy should be any different."

Neil Saunders, the managing director at Conlumino, the consultancy, expects retail sales to be flat or "slightly positive" this Christmas.

Indeed, whisper it quietly, but a key message from this week's results was that many of the UK's biggest chains continue to grow profits and underlying sales. For instance, John Lewis Partnership (JLP) delivered a leap of 59.8 per cent in pre-tax profits to £144.5m over the 26 weeks to 28 July, driven by like-for-like sales growth at its department store chain and grocer Waitrose. These two were joined by five other big retailers – Argos, Primark, SuperGroup, Laura Ashley and Dunelm – in delivering growth in underlying sales this week.

This is despite the distraction of the Olympics, which kept most consumers glued to their TVs for two weeks, and monsoon-like weather over much of the spring and summer. The rain was particularly brutal for fashion chains and DIY retailers.

Nevertheless, most – if not all – retail chief executives deny they have been helped by any rise in consumer sentiment, or spending, but instead point to self-help measures, such as an improved product offer or online operation. Next, the homewares and clothing retailer, is a case in point. While its shares dropped 7 per cent yesterday after it spooked the market by warning of "disappointing" trading in August and early September, Next still delivered an impressive, 10.2 per cent leap in pre-tax profits to £251.3m over the 26 weeks to 28 July. This was driven by its online and catalogue business, where revenues rose 13.3 per cent to £551.7m. However, sales in Next's stores were flat, reflecting how even the biggest chains are having to scrap for every pound of expenditure on the high street.

In fact, retailers are now staring down the barrel of a sixth-consecutive Christmas in an economic downturn after the Northern Rock crisis that heralded the start of the credit crunch in September 2007.

Mr Hyman says: "We are in a completely different world where, because spending is not growing, in order to win sales you really have to have a superior proposition to the shop next door."

On the brutal, dog-eat-dog high street, the polarisation between the winners and losers look set to continue.

Mr Saunders expects the department stores, John Lewis and Debenhams, to be in the Christmas winners' enclosure, as well as the internet giant Amazon because of its slick and reliable delivery service.

He said: "Department stores generally do well over Christmas. John Lewis is a very clear winner at the moment and Debenhams is well positioned to take share from the market."

He also expects Waitrose and Sainsbury's to perform well over the festive period, reflecting the fact that many shoppers trade up to them at Christmas and both have delivered strong sales this year, according to industry data.

However, Mr Saunders is less complimentary about two giants of the sector, Marks & Spencer and Tesco, which have both lost momentum in the UK over the last 12 months. M&S has found the going particularly tough in womenswear this year, although its food business has performed much better.

Mr Saunders said: "I don't think M&S will be one of the winners this Christmas. I think their [non-food] offer has been pretty lacklustre over the past two Christmases and I have not seen anything this year that has changed my view on this."

Tesco's £1bn plan to improve the performance of its UK stores this year – by hiring more staff and investing in its fresh-food departments – appears to have shown signs of bearing fruit in recent Kantar Worldpanel data.

But Mr Saunders says: "The jury is still out on Tesco in the UK. I think they will promotion the hell out of their stores at Christmas."

Until the fundamentals around household budgets change, retailers are unlikely to toast a vintage Christmas.

Lord Wolfson said: "It is likely that inflation will continue to rise faster than earnings [wages] for some time, and as long as it does the consumer economy will remain subdued."

For chains not laden with debt and scheduled to spend the festive period restructuring, however, the good news is trading should be no worse than it has been over the last year.

Charlie Mayfield, the chairman of JLP, says: "We've been saying for some time that we are bumping along in a period of slow growth and I stick to that view. Slightly above or below zero is where we are."

He added: "It is not really recession and nothing like as bad as it was a few years ago. The consumer picture has stabilised."