Chris Blackhurst: Anxious shopkeepers study the runes as Christmas rush gets a late start
Midweek View: Retailers are seeing heavy spending within the M25, but far more caution outside
In The White Company in London's Sloane Square early on Monday evening, there were queues for the tills. The store was doing a brisk trade, with assistants struggling to cope, as the shoppers, mostly women, piled up their gifts.
"It's funny, if you'd been here this morning it was quiet," said one of the staff. "It's like Christmas began at three o'clock this afternoon."
At Jeff Randall's Christmas drinks party that night, there was a fair sprinkling of retail titans in attendance, as you would expect for the Sky News business star. When I mentioned The White Company experience to a couple of them, they nodded in acknowledgement.
They offered their own anecdotal evidence that on the high street, Christmas is coming late this year.
It's as if November never happened, said one. Another agreed: the shops may have had their Christmas bunting up last month but only now is the shopping season really beginning.
We're in that period, more than any other, when the nation's shopkeepers, their staff, suppliers and investors, cast anxious eyes everywhere, seizing on any piece of information, desperate for signs of a good Christmas season.
So, what runes are they examining, what are they predicting for this Christmas? Crucial to their mood is the calendar.
To the majority of us, Christmas is one long doze in front of the TV, punctuated by bouts of seeing relatives and friends, and yet more eating and drinking. One day blurs into another; we've no idea where we are in the week.
That's definitely not the case with the retail crowd. This year, Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday, with most people breaking up from work on the previous Friday, the 20th. That means they've got a full weekend plus two more shopping days until the 25th. Monday the 23rd is earmarked as the busiest retail day of the entire year, the one when folk will buy their turkeys and festive groceries. Plus they will be purchasing last-minute presents.
Last year, the 23rd was on a Sunday, with restricted trading hours. This year, the stores will be open from early morning until well into the evening.
Electrical sales at Christmas are now shaped by Black Friday. This year, Asda, Amazon and John Lewis all enjoyed a bumper 29 November or Black Friday – the beginning of the holiday shopping period in the US and now transported over here, with plenty of discounting, particularly in electrical goods.
For the week ending 8 December, John Lewis is reporting total sales up 1.8 per cent year-on-year, and down 1.7 per cent on the previous week. That negative figure can be ignored, however, due to the surge in the previous week caused by Black Friday.
The number that will give other retailers pause is the 1.8 per cent. Included in there is a 22 per cent rise in online sales year-on-year. The likely actual high-street performance was down around 5 per cent – a statistic that does not augur well for the rest of retail, as John Lewis is now the industry bellwether.
In clothes, the shops are carrying too much stock. October was unseasonably warm, meaning they could not shift full-price coats, hats, scarves and gloves. This time last year, the temperature was seven degrees cooler. So far, we've had few crisp, dry, cold days of the sort that retailers crave.
This is an especially nervous Christmas at Marks & Spencer, where much hinges on women's clothing. Stock levels seem high. Has M&S bought up the world's supply of cashmere? Certainly, it's hard to suppose that there's any left for anyone else, judging by the heaps of jumpers and cardigans on sale in its branches.
In food, Waitrose saw its sales climb by only 0.8 per cent year-on-year. Subtracting new space which is less than a year old gives a like-for-like figure of minus 1 per cent, and when you account for inflation, which is around 4 per cent, this implies volumes are down 5 per cent year-on-year.
This would be a reasonable prognosis as consumers appear to be cutting back on food while placing orders for big-ticket items, the new Xbox and PS4, and keeping something in reserve for their heating bills.
This austerity Britain, mix-and-match, thriftiness is even more pronounced in areas where there are high proportions of public-sector workers. There, jobs have been lost and pay rises frozen. On this, all major retailers agree: they are seeing heavy spending within the M25 but far greater caution outside, in the rest of the country. It's like there are two nations with twin economies, so much so that the large chains maintain the publishing of group-wide results does not reflect the true picture across individual regions.
How will Christmas 2013 compare overall? So far, the signals suggest a drop in sales. But much may depend on those last days, that final weekend plus the 23rd. Everyone is pinning their hopes on a late rush.
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