Christmas Trends: Stores left with stocks unsold as shopping rush slows

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Absence of the expected pre-Christmas spending boom has left stores with around pounds 3bn of unsold goods. This has led to predictions of big bargains in the New Year sales. Kim Sengupta and Nigel Cope look at why stores have over-stocked.

At last, on the last weekend before Christmas, stores reported that a shopping rush of sorts has started, but they admit it is too little and too late to rescue the disappointing overall sales figures.

Much of the increased trade, in fact, was due to discounts of up to 50 per cent being offered to kick-start sluggish trade. And although the upturn is expected to continue for the few remaining days, retailers admit it will not be enough to turn it into a good Christmas for them.

A new study, published by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) says the result of all this would be the best bargains available in New Year sales since January l994 when the country was still in the depth of recession.

The build up of excess goods has been caused, it says by over-expectation by retailers while placing their orders in the summer when spending was boosted by building society windfalls and soaring property prices.

Although the volume of sales this year has remained generally healthy, some of the "feelgood factor" has been dissipated by interest-rate rises, fears of higher taxes around the corner, and the ending of building society windfalls.

The CEBR study predicts that the discounts will boost sales in January by as much as 9 per cent to a total of pounds 6.7bn for the month-the highest on record. But retail sales growth will fall sharply during the rest of l998 as the taxes and interest rates take their toll.

Professor Douglas McWilliams, of the CEBR, pointed out there had been five interest rate rises since May, as well as tax increases and uncertainty on the stock market since the autumn.

He estimates that the value of unsold goods this Christmas could be more than pounds 1bn higher than normal at the end of the Christmas period. Added to the underlying rise in retailer stocks earlier in the year to pounds 2.24bn, this suggests a total amount going forward to January to pounds 3bn.

Some sectors of the market are doing better than others. Many people spent their summer windfalls on consumer durables such as electronics, and other household items, and would be unlikely to do the same now. However, other retailers like book stores are said to be having a comparatively better Christmas.

Janice Clarke, one of the authors of the CEBR report, said in January the best discounts would be in clothing, fashion, and hi-tech items such as electronics, toys and computer games.

"It's going to be a good period for bargain- hunters" she said. "Perhaps the canny shoppers should just give IOU's as Christmas presents and then go and buy them in the sales".

Retailers say this Christmas has been a "white-knuckle ride" with shoppers leaving it until the last minute. Sally Collinson, of the Oxford Street Association, said: "It certainly has not been a bumper Christmas. But trading finally seems to have taken off."

Marks & Spencer said people seemed to be leaving their shopping later and later, but it was expecting a good final few days, while John Lewis said it looked like "a practical Christmas" with sales of crockery and cutlery selling better than some clothing ranges.