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We are facing lean times, say retailers

TWO retailers reported signs of consumers shifting upmarket in their buying patterns yesterday though they said higher interest rates, falling tax reliefs and increased competition would make 1998 a difficult year on the high street.

Moss Bros, the menswear retailer which owns a string of stores including Savoy Taylors Guild and Blazer, said men were turning their backs on sportswear and shifting instead towards buying smarter casualwear and formal clothing such as suits. "It's Adios Adidas," said Rowland Gee, managing director. "People just don't think it is as trendy to wear sports labels for fashion any more."

He said men were shifting towards upmarket labels such as Hugo Boss, Yves Saint Laurent and Georgio Armani, though they still wanted keen prices. Other hot sellers include tactile fabrics for shirts while formal suits were proving increasingly popular among students and other groups in the Moss Bros hire departments.

"Men are spending in a more design-conscious, strategic way," Mr Gee said. "Sales of brands such as Hugo Boss are rising sharply while formal wear is also growing, particularly among the more upmarket demographic groups."

Separately Goldsmiths, the jewellery chain, said the lower end of the market and the top end were slow but that jewellery such as Omega, Gucci and Cartier watches were selling well. Sales of Rolex watches fell by over 20 per cent as a result of the strong pound. However, the company said this impact had been distorted by higher Rolex sales in the previous year when tourists had taken advantage of a weaker pound.

Goldsmiths said it was achieving high sales of its "Millennium" range of jewellery. An American design to which Goldsmiths has exclusive UK rights, the collection is expected to sell pounds 3.5m worth of goods at Goldsmiths this year with the average sale around pounds 1,000. Goldsmiths reported a 15 per cent rise in profits to pounds 6.9m.

At Moss Bros, profits rose by 23 per cent to pounds 19.6m. Like for like sales were up by 7.3 per cent last year and by 5 per cent in current trading.

Also reporting yesterday was Oasis, the women's fashion retailer whose shares have been hit by two profits warnings in the past year. Reporting a 33 per cent fall in profits to pounds 10.4m, the company said like for like sales in current trading were down by 3 per cent on the same period last year. This compares with a 9 per cent fall at Christmas when the company had been hit by stock and range problems. The company said the figures showed "an improving trend".