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Fingers crossed at DIY stores

Spring turns us into home-improvement enthusiasts - good news for retailers on the long road out of recession
At Easter, gardeners and DIY enthusiasts stumble bleary-eyed from their winter hibernation and discover that the lawnmower doesn't work, the fence needs fixing and the sitting room redecorating.

That often means a trip to the local DIY store. Big chains such as B&Q and Homebase will be laying on a welcome for what they call their Christmas. Each giant store can make up to half of a year's sales over the Easter holiday.

B&Q has the biggest share of the pounds 7.7bn DIY products market. It opened four of its stores overnight on Thursday to cater to those people - a fifth of the population, if a B&Q survey is to be believed - with a penchant for doing-it-themselves in the small hours of the morning. Night owls were treated to live music and dance and promotions such as a free pounds 80 electric shower with every bath suite bought between 4am and 6am.

Last Easter B&Q sold 32 million litres of compost, 2.5 million litres of paint, 300,000 growing bags, 600,000 paving slabs, 6,000 barbecues and 660,000 rolls of wallpaper - enough to paper 110,000 rooms. The company hopes to do better this year.

Good weather helps showcase gardening goods and plants. Homebase managing director Ross MacLaren says trying to sort out the timing so the plants all arrive at the store when they are supposed to, all the while watching the weather, "makes people go grey".

Big sales are expected of lawnmowers, forks, spades, shears, paint, wallpaper and creosote. Homebase will offer holders of its loyalty cards 10 per cent off everything, while shoppers have a chance to win trips on Concorde and ocean cruises from scratch cards, even if they don't buy anything.

About 60 per cent of shoppers at B&Q's stores are men, although more women are expected over Easter because "women are the major influence behind decorating decisions". Men, it seems, are the ones who actually buy the products.

Families won't find much in the way of entertainment for the kids. None of the stores plans to match the likes of home furnishing chain Ikea with its restaurant, resident clowns and play room full of multi-coloured plastic balls and stuffed animals.

Large stores are banned from opening on Easter Sunday. Although Sunday trading laws were abolished three years ago, stores over 280sq m are still prevented from opening. However. this prohibition may be crumbling. B&Q used the results of a survey it conducted in February to press its case for being allowed to open. It has since received permission from Arun District Council in Sussex and 10 other districts to open the garden centres attached to 11 of its stores today as long as till points remain outside and no part of the store itself is used as selling space. The survey found that 56 per cent of respondents who plan to shop at Easter want to buy DIY goods, but most are not aware that superstores will be shut today.

DIY retailers could do with a good Easter as they slowly recover from a slump in 1995. B&Q is leading the way, with its 14 per cent sales increase helping parent company Kingfisher report a 25 per cent rise in profit in the past year. Homebase is seeing better sales as its parent company J Sainsbury attempts to integrate it with its existing Texas chain. Homebase sales rose 16 per cent in the last fiscal year.

Part of the reason for the improvement is a pick-up in the housing market, where prices have risen 9 per cent in the last year, according to Nationwide Building Society. DIY chains, however, emphasise this is only one factor. There is evidence that bonus payouts from building societies converting to banks, plus money from maturing Tessas, are going towards decorating. However, hard evidence linking DIY sales to a housing boom is still hard to come by.

That will make for a nerve-racking four days for managers as they wait and see just how much shoppers are willing to fork out on their homes.

Homebase's Mr MacLaren said: "I won't be a happy Easter Bunny until I've seen how the sales went on Tuesday."