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Christmas boost for high street

Retailers were expressing cautious optimism yesterday that a rise in pre-Christmas sales compared with last year might help offset poor sales throughout the past 12 months.

Although store chains refused to give precise figures for sales in the shopping count-down to 25 December, the general picture they painted was more hopeful than last year.

Clothes retailers were one of the biggest losers earlier this year, hit by the unusually mild autumn. But there appears to be some evidence of a pick-up in trading.

Transax, Europe's largest cheque guarantee company, said a survey of authorisation requests made from a sample of 19,000 high street outlets showed the average spend was pounds 128. Cheque authorisations have risen 3 per cent since last year. Some categories are doing significantly better, including fashion and footwear sales, up 4 per cent, and menswear with a 12 per cent rise.

The biggest improvement is in electrical stores, where average cheque values are 15 per cent up on 1994.

James May, director general at the British Retail Consortium, said: "What we are seeing in terms of figures we receive and in anecdotal evidence is a mood of cautious optimism. Sales are up about 3-4 per cent in value terms and 1-2 per cent in volume terms. It is not a great boom but it is still a picture of modest growth.

"One thing different from last year is that there is not so much of a North-South divide. Last year, Scotland was steaming ahead. This year, things seem fairly even."

Many large out-of-town shopping centres have had a bumper festive season. Lakeside shopping centre, in Thurrock, Essex, recorded 32,000 cars entering its car park on Monday, up 12 per cent on the equivalent day last year.

"Many retailers are saying it is the best single day of weekday trading they have ever had," the centre's manager, Chris Fear, said.

Smaller items such as books, CDs and fragrances have fared well. WH Smith declined to comment on trading. However, it is thought that its Compaq multimedia PCs, which retail for between pounds 1,099 and pounds 1,699, have been selling well.

Sally Collinson, executive officer at Oxford Street Retailers Association in London, said business was up between 5 and 10 per cent in all stores, boosted by tourist trade. "People are not throwing their hands up in the air but they are happy enough."