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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January 2005, 00:01 GMT
Weak Christmas dogs UK retailers
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

Furniture store slashes its prices
Weak trading sparked early clearance sales across the UK
With the 2004 Christmas sales said to be the worst in a decade, it is clear that all retailers are equal. But some retailers are more equal than others.

Within the UK's generally weak retail landscape, there are in fact companies that have fared pretty well - despite the impression that they have all taken such a battering they are barely left standing.

"The Christmas sales figures are disappointing for many retailers but do not show the abysmal performance anticipated by some in the run up to Christmas," said Helen Dickson, head of retail at the consultants KPMG.

Trouble ahead

That said, some industries are in real difficulty. "Sales of computers and mobile phones were hit by significant price deflation while sales of big-ticket items were particularly difficult in home-related areas," observed Credit Suisse First Boston's (CSFB) equity research team.

Graph showing changes in UK retail sales since 2003

"Furniture and homeware suffered, clothing and footwear struggled and only food and drink showed some growth, helped by the longer pre-Christmas week," according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and accountants KPMG.

For Britain's retailers, weak trading during the Christmas period spells more bad news for the year ahead.

Dismal pre-Christmas sales forced retailers to hold clearance sales early, before the end of the year, and this has had a knock-on effect on January trading.

Deflation threat

Non-food retailers have a particularly tough time ahead.

Rising interest rates and a slowdown in the housing market have knocked consumers' optimism, thus causing a sharp fall in demand for expensive goods.

Furniture store slashes its prices
Cautious consumers are happy to walk away from bargains

This "remains a strong concern for the retailing sector as it shows no sign of abating in the immediate future", observed Kevin Hawkins, director general, of the BRC.

Many have also become more choosy about where they spend their cash.

"When consumers get more cautious, they're much more fussy about where they shop and they tend to go to the places that serve them best," Mintel analyst Richard Perks said.

Then there is the prospect of an ever increasing flood of cheap imports from China, in particular of textiles and clothing, once it becomes a full member of the World Trade Organisation.

There just hasn't been anything I really wanted or any deal that was good enough to interest me
Graham, UK

Another threat comes from the supermarkets which are entering the non-food market head first, with Tesco in particular offering ever more clothing, DVDs and garden furniture.

"We expect Tesco to continue to pursue its existing strategies at the expense of both food and non-food retailers," said CSFB.

With the rising popularity of online shopping for everything from fridges or stereos to computers and power tools, there is little doubt that non-food retailers will have to learn to operate in a "more competitive and more deflationary environment" in 2005, said CSFB.

Customer rotation

In the food sector, the situation is more nuanced. Tesco is roaring ahead and hopes are high ahead of its Christmas trading statement, due on 18 January, though analysts warn against reading too much into the figures given that they will include Tesco's online trading figures.

Like-for-like retail sales fell 0.4% in December
Total sales rose 2.5% in December

But other food retailers have yet to prove their worth. Sainsbury's, which is due to report on 13 January, will be scrutinised to see whether its new chief Justin King has yet delivered any improvements.

Also on analysts' radar is the progress of Morrisons' acquisition of Safeway last year. According to CSFB, "the Safeway-to-Morrisons conversions are creating a customer 'rotation' - out of Asda food into Morrisons conversions and out of old Safeway into Tesco".

But if the times ahead look uncertain for the UK's retailers, it could be an even riskier year ahead for Britain's retail bosses.

CSFB predicts that as many retailers struggle to bounce back from a disastrous finale to 2004, much of the attention from investors' point of view will be on their management teams. So expect some high profile firings in the months ahead.

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