Britain's beleaguered high street retailers have been given a rare opportunity over the Easter bank holiday to stem a depressing trend of falling sales and dropping prices.
With the Easter and the May bank holidays falling within a week of each other for the first time in 45 years - creating seven days of potential shopping time over an 11-day period - stores will be hoping to recoup some of the lost ground.
Retailers are under huge pressure from a combination of factors. Prices of goods such as clothing are falling at their fastest rate since the days of post-war rating, cheap imports are driving prices down and customers are using the internet to hunt out cheap bargains.
Industry experts yesterday warned that if the UK's biggest names, such as Marks & Spencer, BHS and C&A fail to show an upturn in sales investors may lose faith altogether.
Richard Perks, an analyst at Retail Intelligence, said: "There is no question that this weekend is very important. M&S and the other clothing retailers have been having a hard time of it. People have four days off and the shops will want to take advantage of that."
DIY outlets will also want to cash in over the bank holidays. Richard Hyman, head of retail analyst specialists Verdict, said: "This weekend will be the be all and end all for DIY retailers. It is the most important weekend in the calendar, when people start to think that summer is coming and it is time to do all those jobs around the house that they have not got round to."
B&Q predicts that 10 million people will walk through its doors over Easter alone and says 26 million people will be busy with home improving pursuits over the holiday. But the outlook for the high street is less certain.
"Easter is a crucial time for the high street," Mr Hyman said. "But even if sales go up it will not be enough to make up for the poor performance of the last year. The holiday is not long enough to create a major reversal - it is not Christmas."
High street retailers hope the holiday will be able to make up at least in part for the 15 per cent slump in sales prices in 1999 and a continuing downward trend this year.
Ian Rogers, commercial manager of Selfridges, said: "Our expectations are already that sales over the holiday will be up on last year's. We expect a lot more people coming into the shop as people will take the four days off in between the two lots of bank holiday. We also expect a lot more tourists over that period."
But even if consumers go shopping mad, it is unlikely to be enough to reverse the trend.The high street giant Arcadia, which owns Burton Menswear and Dorothy Perkins, announced last week it has been forced to close 400 stores after it plunged £8m into the red last year, down from a profit of £30m in 1998. M&S has also announced a major restructuring.
Analysts say the high street is being squeezed both at the top and bottom end. At the top people are taking advantage of feel-good times to load up on designer gear, reflected in strong results for French Connection and designer Ted Baker, who recorded a 33 per cent increase in sales and pre-tax profit this year.
But research by Verdict shows people are also turning to the internet and to discount clothes outlets. George, which is sold at Asda, and women's wear producers Peacock and Matalan were major players in drawing 15 per cent of the country's high earners to discount outlets last year.
Mr Hyman says the future does not look bright for the high street: "It will be tough for the rest of this year and next for high street shops, especially in fashion. We will see major consolidation and casualties, including some of the big names."