Shopkeepers and markets celebrate: 'Tidings of comfort and joy' in West End as unstoppable Footsie rockets

WHILE leading retailers yesterday celebrated their busiest Christmas for years, the stock market joined the festivities with the FT-SE 100 index setting records and briefly breaching the 3,400 level.

Michael Cole, spokesman for Harrods in Knightsbridge, said: 'There are tidings of comfort and joy in the retail business this Christmas. Sales figures are up 15 per cent on 1992 and 20 per cent better than 1991.'

Others believe the underlying picture is more mixed. Shoppers appear to have regained confidence, but are still looking for value. The new Budget timing has also concentrated shopping towards the end of the season.

Barclaycard, the biggest credit card organisation, which accounts for a third of all transactions, pointed to steady rather than spectacular growth, and said consumers were still cautious.

Mike McManus, commercial director, said: 'There was certainly a big increase in spending over the past weekend, as we would have expected, but this has not compensated greatly for the quieter times we have seen this month.'

A 15 per cent increase in spending on Barclaycard last weekend contributed to an 8 per cent improvement for December as a whole.

Tony Shiret, stores analyst at the stockbroker Barclays de Zoete Wedd, said: 'The November Budget delayed some spending decisions. Things started slow and have picked up, but it is not much to get excited about.'

John Lewis, the department store, reported a 7 per cent increase in sales for the five months to last Saturday compared with the same period in 1992. But it said last-minute sales were up about 10 per cent.

At Selfridges, a spokeswoman said: 'It was a bumper weekend and things are still ticking along nicely this week.' Sales were up by double-figure percentages and there were 30 per cent more visits to Father Christmas in the grotto. Customers passing through the store were 6 per cent ahead of 1992 at one and a half million.

'The street is heaving,' said Anthony Salem, a director of Liberty, referring to numbers outside the Regent Street store. 'It is much better than we have seen for the last three years.' He estimates that spending in the stores is up about 10 per cent on last year, with scarves and ties selling well. 'Tintin is all the rage,' he added.

Ruth Parkhouse, a spokeswoman for the Retail Consortium, the shop owners' trade body, said: 'Sales are very good indeed. Retailers are reporting between 13 and 17 per cent increases in turnover on last year.

'There are also more people in the shops, and they are spending more without being overly lavish. There will be a lot of useful presents in our Christmas stockings this year. Hairdriers, irons, video films and compact discsare favourites - items in the pounds 20-pounds 30 range.'

Harrods has sold 35,000 hampers, 20,000 bottles of champagne, 65,000 tins of biscuits, 75 tons of Christmas puddings, 71,000 feet of tinsel and 125,000 baubles.

On the stock market, shares soared to yet another record high. The FT-SE 100 index of leading shares closed up 40.8 points at 3,396.5, having touched 3,400.3 at one point during the afternoon. That means the market has risen almost 13 per cent since it first breached the 3,000 barrier on 11 August, and gained 550 points since the start of the year.

Trading volume was reasonable. The markets will close at 12.30 today and re-open on Wednesday.

Market report, page 19

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