Mixed fortunes on high streets

NIGEL COPE

The polarisation of the high street was illustrated further yesterday when a number of Britain's leading retailers delivered sharply contrasting verdicts on Christmas trading.

Boots, Carpetright and Signet, the jewellery group, reported healthy sales increases. But Storehouse (BhS and Mothercare) and Sears (Selfridges and Freemans) reported disappointing sales.

The figures follow the pattern established yesterday when Next and Dixons unveiled bumper sales increases while House of Fraser, the department store group issued a profits warning blaming the mark-down of excess stock.

John Richards, retail analyst at NatWest Securities said: "It is very clear that consumers have a very good idea of the retailers which can be relied on to deliver quality and value and those that cannot."

Sears delivered a downbeat trading statement saying group sales were down 2 per cent on a like-for-like basis in the six months to Janaury.

Comparative sales in the shoe shops, which include Dolcis, Shoe Express, and the under-performing Saxone and Curtess, were down 11 per cent. Selfridges reported sales up 12.5 per cent while Adams, the childrenswear chain, also did well. Ladieswear performed poorly.

Shares in Storehouse fell 20.5p to 300.5p when it surprised the market with flat like-for-like sales in the six weeks up to and including Christmas Eve.

At BhS, sales of womenswear and homeware did well but childrenswear performed poorly. Mothercare suffered in what the company claimed was a difficult market.

The best performance of the day came from Carpetright, Sir Phil Harris' fast expanding carpet chain. Like-for-like sales in the six months to October were 10 per cent ahead of last year's. level's. Sales have also exceeded forecasts over Christmas and New Year.

Boots was also positive with sales in the third quarter to December up 5.4 per cent on last year.

Boots the Chemists, which is traditionally the group's best performer, led the way with a like-for-like sales increase of 5.1 per cent. Other divisions struggled. Like-for-like sales were flat at Halfords, down 6.4 per cent at Do it All and down 5.8 per cent at AG Stanley, the Fads and Homestyle division.

Consumers seem to have warmed to jewellery this Christmas, according to a bullish report from Signet.

Like-for-like sales for the eight weeks before Christmas were 6 per cent up on last year, a much better performance than expected.

Ernest Jones, the more upmarket chain did well but H Samuel struggled and saw sales fall by 3 per cent. Sterling, the American business has also done well reporting a 10 per cent increase in pre-Christmas trading.

Analysts have now upgraded their profits forecast for the full year from around pounds 15m to pounds 20m.

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