Market Report: Retailers in retreat amid doubts over Christmas spending

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Fears that Christmas spending is lagging behind expectations hit retail shares. The British Retail Consortium started the alarm bells ringing when it said last month's like-for-like sales increase was the smallest for more than 18 months.

Although many high streets are jam-packed with spend-happy shoppers the stock market started to fret that the yearly spree will, at best, be late starting. If too many people hold back there is a danger the last-minute rush squeezes demand and cash registers under-perform.

Retail shares, which have had a good run, were in no mood to absorb such nagging worries. Next led the retreat, off 27p at 709p. Dixons (23p down at 635.5) and Marks & Spencer (17p at 624p) were other major casualties.

Kingfisher, with a little help from Salomon Smith Barney, managed to resist the retail retreat. The shares rose 3p (after 9p) to 851p as the US investment house advised clients to buy ahead of today's trading statement.

Elsewhere takeover excitement continued to waft around financials and returned to Safeway, the hard-pressed superstores chain. In busy trading Safeway rose 13p to 338p with Asda, up 1p at 174.5p, the favourite to pounce.

Stories went the rounds that Safeway was preparing its defences against an Asda assault. The two supermarketeers held merger talks in the summer but they were abandoned once it became clear the Government was not impressed by the idea of creating a new giant which, in some respects, would be larger than the industry leader, Tesco.

There is, however, a growing theory that Asda has put together a Safeway strategy which it feels Westminster would be able to accept.

Perhaps significantly, Allan Leighton, Asda's chief executive, is spending this week in Canada, hardly the ideal base if his company is about to launch its biggest ever expansion bid.

The rest of the stock market enjoyed a relatively busy but unexciting session. Footsie ended 10.3 points off at 5,177.1.

Barclays led financials. It jumped 66p to 1,639p as rumours continued to swirl about further bids and deals in what has become a highly charged sector. National Westminster Bank, up 18p to 1,016p, remains everyone's favourite target. Insurance groups and the former building societies are also vulnerable.

British Aerospace was the highest flying Footsie constituent, climbing 73p to 1,768p as the British, French and German Governments called for the European aircraft industry to restructure, producing a blueprint by March 31.

Consolidation is already the favoured option of the leading aircraft groups, which want to regroup in order to underline their challenge to the US giants.

Glaxo Wellcome improved 5p to 1,440p following an upbeat investment presentation, and Oxford Molecular added 5.5p to 214p on rumours Cazenove was planning a positive circular.

Energis, the business telephone business controlled by National Grid, made a subdued debut. In their when-issued form, the shares closed at 292p against a 290p placing. There was heavy trading. Grid gained pounds 203m from the flotation; it retains a 74.3 per cent stake.

Bovis Homes, the house builder floated by the P&O shipping group at 200p, ended at 199p.

Cairn Energy and Tullow Oil were excited by rumours that an announcement about exploration licences was about to be delivered by the Bangladesh government. Tullow rose 6p to 139.5p and Cairn 22p to 486.5p.

Securicor dialled a 16.5p gain to 306.5p on The Independent's report that the Government is likely to allow BT to take full control of Cellnet, the mobile telephone business. BT has for long wanted to buy Securicor's 40 per cent stake. The previous Government frowned on such a deal, despite BT pressure.

Waste Recycling gained 13.5p to a 304.5p peak after paying pounds 11.9m cash for East Waste, a Cambridgeshire waste disposal company.

Profit warnings took their toll. Matthew Clark, the cider group which sliced its dividend, was crushed 46.5p to a 183.5p low and Partners Holdings slumped 71.5p to 90p. The stationery retailer came to market in April at 150p.

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