John Lewis hits new sales record as rivals suffer

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The Independent Online

Christmas came early for John Lewis Partnership after last minute shoppers helped the group to break its own trading record for the first time in the seven-day Christmas countdown. Its success came at the expense of its high street rivals, which failed to lure more bargain hunters through their doors, separate figures showed.

Sales at John Lewis in the week to 23 December hit £94.3m, beating the same week in 2005 by 16.3 per cent. The figures, which include sales at its Waitrose food chain and its internet site, also topped the previous week by £500,000.

Gareth Thomas, retail operations director at John Lewis, said: "Last week was a big surprise to everybody. We never normally take record sales in the week before Christmas."

Cosmetics, lingerie and gift food proved popular last-minute buys, consolidating what was a "traditional" Christmas for the group. The one exception was "e-frames" - digital photo frames - which sold strongly.

Elsewhere on the high street, many retailers hoping for a final burst of business to save their bottom lines may have been disappointed. Figures from Footfall, which measures shopper traffic on high streets, showed that around 8 per cent fewer people ventured out than during the comparable week the previous year.

"Christmas week was down. Christmas has been slower than we have seen. People will wonder whether the next few days will offer some respite," a Footfall spokeswoman said.

Data from SPSL, another research group that audits shopper numbers, revealed that Christmas weekend was much quieter than many retailers had expected. "We had anticipated a record surge on Saturday, but in truth it was a steady day rather than spectacular one," SPSL's Tim Denison said. The number of people out shopping on Saturday was marginally down on both the previous week and last year, according to SPSL, while the drop-off on Christmas Eve was greater still. This was attributed to the fact that last year the 24th was a Saturday, which meant shops could stay open later.

Despite a late surge across the Atlantic, there was a similar story from American retailers. A busy final weekend before Christmas was not enough to bring sales up to expectations, and stores reopened yesterday offering additional large discounts in an attempt to lure shoppers.

Figures released by the main credit card companies showed sales growth over the peak shopping period - from Thanksgiving at the end of November, through to Christmas Eve - was sharply lower than in 2005.

That dashes hopes that America's sluggish consumers might return to drive the economy faster into 2007, and strengthens the hand of bearish pundits who fear a hard landing for the economy.

Mastercard said that holiday sales growth was 6.6 per cent, compared to 8.7 per cent last year. And Visa lowered its forecast for November and December sales growth to 6.5 per cent, compared to 8.3 per cent a year ago. It had previously expected 7.5 per cent.

Expensive electrical goods such as widescreen televisions have been doing a brisk trade, but clothing sales were the biggest disappointment, mainly because large parts of the US have been enjoying a mild start to the winter.

"I think a lot of people were hoping that the end of the season would really bail out a lot of the apparel sectors," said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis for MasterCard Advisors.

The retail industry also says consumers gave $24bn (£12.3bn) of gift cards instead of presents this year, up a third on 2005 - and those sales won't be booked until they are redeemed.

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