Last-minute shoppers dispel some of the retail gloom

The outlook for high street sales brightened yesterday as two retailers released upbeat Christmas trading statements, suggesting the recent gloom about the sector had been overdone.

Littlewoods, the mail order and department store group, said it had seen a late improvement in the run-up to Christmas. In the three weeks to December 27, sales in its retail division improved by 15 per cent over the same period last year. In the nine weeks to Christmas, however, sales were up just 6 per cent.

Barry Gibson, chief executive, said the figures were evidence that, spurred on by longer opening hours and prompt home delivery by mail order firms, customers were leaving their Christmas shopping to the last minute. "The consumers will shop when they want to shop," he said.

All of Littlewoods' growth came from its mail order business, which showed a 24 per cent increase in sales in the three weeks in December. Sales in the high street stores actually fell by 1 per cent during the same period as Littlewoods tried to protect its margins by abandoning discounting.

Meanwhile Goldsmiths, the jeweller, reported that in the four weeks to 27 December sales at its 139 high street outlets increased by 17.3 per cent. Sales from comparable stores were up 7.9 per cent on the previous year.

Chairman and chief executive Jureck Piasecki said the figures did not necessarily show that sales would be better than expected across the board. "We're outperforming the sector," he said. "It's very difficult on the high street." Goldsmiths' shares put on 12.5p to close at 275p.

Industry experts said the figures showed investors had been overly pessimistic about the sector. "When retailers say sales are slow they probably mean against budget, not against the previous year," said Clive Vaughan of Verdict, the research group. "We're still confident that December 1997 will represent sales growth over December 1996."

The risk, however, is that retailers who expected a Christmas bonanza will be left with too much stock, which then has to be discounted. The effect is expected to be particularly pronounced for seasonal goods like clothing, which were caught out by the weather, and electrical goods, where sales have fallen back after the windfall buying spree.