Are Waitrose, JJB Sports and Clinton Cards Christmas retail miracles?

The three retailers have all published encouraging Christmas trading figures. And for the second day in a row, we're suspicious...

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
Well. Consider our flabber well and truly ghasted. More Christmas trading figures are out this morning, and it’s the second consecutive day we’ve seen surprisingly positive results. At the top of Santa’s list of the well-behaved is Waitrose, sales at which rose by 3.8% in December, compared with the same time last year. That probably won’t raise many eyebrows, considering Waitrose is owned by the John Lewis partnership, which yesterday reported a 6.2% rise in sales. But what’s more astonishing is that JJB Sports had a good Christmas, too – and even struggling Clinton Cards didn’t let the side down entirely.

Back to Waitrose, where grocery sales rose by a not inconsiderable 9.5%, while online sales went up by a staggering 49% (albeit from a very low base - it's only recently got into online sales in earnest). According to its figures, the number of people ordering their Christmas turkeys from the chain rocketed  by 66%, while mince pie sales jumped by more than a third, and sales of Christmas puddings rose by 53%. So no wonder managing director Mark Price puffed his chest out with pride when he said that it had had a ‘very strong Christmas’.

Elsewhere on the high street, JJB Sports also got off to a running start in 2012, after it posted a 5% rise in sales over the four weeks to the end of November. It’s good news for the chain, which has been beset by problems for the past few years (not least the effects of the summer’s looting, which was rather unfairly focused on sports chains). Although it added that like-for-like sales during the 21 weeks to December 26 (which includes August, when the riots took place) were down by 7.8%. At least that was better than the 17.7% fall it had reported during the previous six months.

Even more baffling, given all the dire pre-Christmas warnings by retailers, is that Clinton Cards – yep, the one with the insipid bears – also had a reasonably positive festive season, all things considered. The company reported a sales increase of 0.8% - although its subsidiary, Birthdays UK, admittedly saw a 2.7% decline. It seems new CEO Darcy Wilson-Rymer, who was drafted in to help the company pull itself back into the red (it lost £10.7m last year), is feeling cautiously optimistic about the year ahead: ‘Despite a tough retail climate, we remain in line with the board’s expectations,’ he said. Which is about as optimistic as one can get, given the circumstances.

So after all that um-ing and ah-ing before Christmas, what’s going on? Two things, we’d wager: firstly, in a desperate attempt to get reluctant customers through their doors, retailers began discounting way before Christmas, which will undoubtedly have played a part in driving up sales. It’s worth pointing out, too, that all these are sales figures, rather than profits: it’ll be interesting to see what all that discounting has done to retailers’ margins.

Secondly, and probably most crucially, these figures are comparisons with last year, which, as MT still shudderingly recalls, was practically arctic – thus discouraging shoppers from getting out and about, thus producing the direst Christmas sales figures for eons. By that logic, any comparison with last winter’s sales are bound to be good. So it’s probably worth waiting until retailers show us their end-of-year results before we start talking about any Christmas miracles.

Although that might not be entirely fair. The Purchasing Managers’ Index has suggested that the service sector (which includes all service businesses – not just retailers) actually grew last month: the index measured 54.0, up from 52.1 the month before (any figure above 50 means it’s growing). That said, confidence for the future is still apparently low – so let’s not get too excited yet.

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