By Michael Northcott Tuesday, 08 January 2013

Phew! No festive shockers for the high street

BRC figures released today show that Christmas sales were up 1.5% on the previous year. And it looks like online sales were the saviour...

After Comet went bust at the tail end of 2012, it looked as though tough economic conditions would cripple the British high street into 2013, too. But according to data released on Tuesday by the British Retail Consortium, December 2012 sales were up slightly, by 1.5% on the same period the previous year, with like-for-likes rising 0.3%. It's not much, but it's something.

It is worth noting that the bulk of the rise was effected by a 17.8% jump in online sales of non-food items. Without this jump, total retail sales for the period would have fallen. Given that some analysts were expecting sales to fall, the new BRC director general Helen Dickinson could be accused of a touch of ‘bah humbug’. She said: ‘Since the beginning of 2011 we’re really not going anywhere,’ and added that the body is expecting little improvement in 2013.

Still, times are tough for most in the wider economy, and some analysts were concerned about a drop in sales, which could have pushed the UK economy just back of the brink of recession. So a touch of growth in Christmas sales has got to be better than a contraction. 

But unfortunately, the performance is nowhere near as good as December 2011, which saw a 4.5% increase compared with the same period in 2010. However, this was partly because the extreme disruptions with snow and ice in 2010 meant that people were kept away from the shops, and retailers were keen to start discounting early the following December.

Take a look at some specific players on the high street though, and the picture does look a little rosier. Department store Debenhams reported record December sales on Tuesday with like-for-likes jumping 5% compared with the same period the previous year, and online sales up a massive 39%. 

John Lewis Partnership also reported a strong rise in Christmas sales last week, and House of Fraser said on Monday that it had enjoyed the ‘best ever’ Christmas period, showing like-for-likes risings 6.3% in the six weeks to 5th January. 

Meanwhile, Majestic Wines also enjoyed a Christmas boost, with a 1.1% rise in like-for-like sales in the seven weeks to 31st December, but it was helped hugely by a 15% rise in online sales of its buy-in-bulk selection of wines.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that a collection of extremely large chains with all the power of their distribution networks cannot really be representative of all retailers, most of which are independent. It will be interesting to see how Q1 treats these firms now that the Christmas rush and January sales are nearly over. And whether the boom in online sales will apply to independents, or just to the large chains...

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