Solid trading over Easter break cheers high street retailers

Stores warn it is still too early to call the bottom of the market
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The Independent Online

Retailers' hopes that the worst of the downturn is over were buoyed by solid trading over the crucial Easter weekend, but they cautioned against reading too much into a few days' trading.

Food sales continued to power ahead, while DIY, fashion and department store chains said trading had been relatively robust. The mood music appears to be at odds with the forecasts that waves of weaker retailers would fold after the second-quarter rent day in March.

John Lewis, which has 27 department stores, said sales for the week to the end of Saturday 11 April were down by just 1.5 per cent on last year, to £48.4m, helped by Good Friday.

Dan Knowles, the director of selling operations for John Lewis, said: "It [the sales] stack up well against the high street as a whole."

He added that fashion sales were up by 6 per cent for the week and childrenswear, particularly shoes, was another strong performer. "We have not seen parents cutting back on children's items," he said.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of a major fashion retailer said: "In general, I think people will have felt heartened by Easter, there was some reasonable trading. But does it mean anything about where we are in the cycle? Absolutely not."

In central London, footfall over the Easter weekend was up by 2 per cent overall and 10.5 per cent on the Monday, compared with the same bank holiday period in March 2008, according to the New West End Company.

In the rest of the UK, footfall was down marginally by 0.3 per cent over the four days.

For DIY retailers, Easter is the single biggest weekend of trading, and a key indicator of forthcoming sales patterns. A spokewoman for B&Q declined to provide sales data, but said: "The first half of the weekend saw interest in paint, wallpapers and easily co-ordinated decorative accessories for indoor DIY projects, and then as the sun came out across parts of the country it drove continued strong sales of greenhouses and grow-your-own seeds."

A spokesman for Asda said: "Business over Easter was very strong with many stores as busy on Good Friday as they are in the lead-up to Christmas."

But with the UK still mired in recession and unemployment set to rise above three million next year, few think the sector is out of the woods yet.

Martin Carr, a retail director at Ernst & Young, said: "We don't expect our restructuring activity in the retail sector to slow down at any point in the next 12 months."