Bottom Line: Quiet upturn

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The Independent Online
LOOMING tax rises and fear of yet another false dawn means that retailers are not exactly shouting about it. But it seems that shoppers are at last returning to Britain's high streets.

The five stores groups reporting yesterday confirmed what others as diverse as Bentalls and Next have already been saying - sales have generally been pretty healthy, although not as good as official figures suggest. All were affected by their own special circumstances.

Liberty has been benefiting from the changes implemented by Patrick Austen, chief executive, epitomised in the slogan 'At Liberty to Sell' now impressed on all staff.

Austin Reed has scored from store refits and imaginative advertising. Such self-help measures will have enhanced the effects of the recovery in spending, but recovery there undoubtedly is.

The improvement is likely to be gradual rather than dramatic, but the extent of operational gearing - witness the result from Liberty's retail division - means retailers should be able to report impressive profit increases. The rewards may not, however, be equally spread.

Laura Ashley paid for its determination to minimise discounting by running out of stock before the new season was ready. Many of Burton's chains are still struggling to get their offer right.

Others, such as Argos and Next, are glowing examples of knowing what their customers want.