Fashion stores suffer worst sales slide in 20 years

The full horror of pre-Christmas trading for clothing retailers - as epitomised by Matalan's profits warning - was laid bare yesterday after fresh figures revealed they suffered their sharpest sales fall for 20 years as shoppers left buying presents until the last minute.

The glum sales figures for fashion retailers, forcing many to start their January sales early, took the gloss off better news for the rest of the high street, data from the Confederation of British Industry revealed. Its survey of retailers found sales from 1 to 17 December were sharply higher than in 2002, buoyed by strong demand for DVDs, food and alcohol.

Overall 54 per cent of retailers saw sales rise on the year, while 21 per cent saw them fall. The balance of 33 per cent compares with minus 3 per cent in December 2002, and is much stronger than November's 19 per cent.

The warm winter weather has made it near to impossible for retailers to shift piles of woollen jumpers and coats, while its unseasonable nature made most of December feel un-Christmassy, analysts have warned.

Clothing retailers as diverse as French Connection and Bhs slashed prices in an attempt to lure shoppers. But this did not prevent the sector from reporting its worst trading since the CBI survey began 20 years ago.

"After a slow start to Christmas trading, many retailers saw sales gather momentum as the big day drew closer, reflecting the changing patterns of Christmas shopping," Ian McCafferty, the CBI's chief economic adviser, said.

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