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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
science
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003