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Business News

High street cheer on cards in the run-up to Christmas

But gloom still persists as M&S profits fall and suit sales plunge

Hopes for robust trading on the high street in the run-up to Christmas will be raised today with data showing retail sales rose last month.

However, Marks & Spencer is expected to give the sector a reality check tomorrow with a sharp fall in half-year profits. Sales of men's suits, in particular, are suffering.

Non-food retailers posted a 0.9 per cent rise in like-for-like revenues in October, with stores selling luxury, outdoor or leisure-related products being the star performers, according to the accountancy firm BDO's High Street Sales Tracker.

Don Williams, the national head of retail and wholesale at BDO, said: "We've learned to live with austerity for five years, but consumers have shown they will not sacrifice Christmas. Now indicators are suggesting the economy will improve in 2013, this will hopefully feed into consumer confidence over the next two months."

However, BDO said sales at fashion chains were flat last month, with a strong start to October offsetting a weak final two weeks of falling sales. That bears out the long-term picture that sales of men's suits across the UK have crashed by nearly a quarter in the past five years.

Figures released today show the value of men's suit sales has tumbled from £207 million in 2008 to £160 million this year. That is 300,00 fewer suits, according to retail analyst Kantar. "Shopping for the work wardrobe can be expensive, and since the recession people cannot afford to splash out," said Kantar analyst Angela Payumo. "Shoppers are making their purchase last longer and choosing more versatile outfits that they can wear for a night out as well as work."

Tomorrow, the fashion giants Marks & Spencer and Primark will post contrasting performances. M&S is forecast to report a 13 per cent fall in pre-tax profits to £280m over the 26 weeks to 29 September, dragged down by a weak performance in its general merchandise business that is dominated by clothing.

Its non-food business is expected to reveal a 2.5 per cent decline in sales in its second quarter, although this will mark an improvement on a slump of 6.8 per cent in the previous three months.

Primark, owned by the conglomerate Associated British Foods, is set to deliver a 14 per cent leap in operating profit to £351m over the year to 15 September. This will have been driven by a 3 per cent rise in underlying sales and improved margins in the second half.