Editorial: Retail habits change, but shopping goes on

Internet sales cannot be ignored when considering the overall health of commerce

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Maybe it was because it is not human nature to be bound by austerity for ever; maybe it was because those prophecies about the world ending last week proved false. Or maybe it was just that the house-guests had left, the rain had briefly let up, and people were intent on escaping their four walls. Whatever the reason, shops around the country reported records broken by the hour. If the Government wanted consumers to spend for the sake of the economy, it seems the penny – and the pounds – finally dropped today.

There are reasons to be wary. High street sales before Christmas were said, in the guarded language of the British Retail Consortium, to have been "acceptable, not exceptional". But it is not clear how far even those sales were achieved by dint of aggressive price-cutting and early clearance sales. British shoppers have become expert at waiting for prices to fall before they buy; an unaltered price tag is seen increasingly as an opening gambit – the prelude to a better deal. It is too early to know whether the wheels of the economy were really oiled.

There is also a difference between price-cutting that suits both retailer and consumer and price-cutting on the order of a distress sale, such as marked the last days and hours of the Comet chain. Immediately before Christmas, one survey warned that as many as 140 retailers were in a "critical condition", while thousands more were "in distress". It found some sectors, though, doing comparatively well, including home improvements and supermarkets; the former perhaps reflecting the difficulty of raising finance to move house; the latter sheer necessity.

Even before today, though, there were reasons not to despair in the face of an indifferent season on the high street. While shop staff spoke of people window-shopping rather than buying, presuming that they then went home to search the internet for a better price, such observations do not have to be depressing. Some retailers may have been outspoken in their condemnation of tax arrangements that allow some multinationals and internet businesses to offer lower prices than home-grown establishments, but others see such competition as keeping them on their toes.

And the thriving of internet shopping – an area where British consumers lead the world – cannot be ignored when judgements are made about the overall health of the retail sector. The much-quoted "spike" in sales on Christmas Day itself is part of the picture. Much depends on where and whether people eventually buy.

There may be many who buy from the internet outlet of the selfsame store where they were window-shopping, using the store more as a showroom than a shop. And here convenience as well as price can be a consideration. It is a lazy store that simply grumbles about the internet without considering how it might make life easier for shoppers, at minimal cost.

There will probably always be people who prefer to see, touch and test what they want to buy – but would also like it carried home for them. And they will doubtless have been among the nearly one million people who thronged London's streets today. With crowds out across the country, reports of the death of the high street – whether Oxford Street, covered mall or showroom – would seem to have been greatly exaggerated.

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