Happier times in Santa's grotto

Christmas sale shop sign Image copyright AP

The big retailers - most of them - can breathe a sigh of relief as their Christmas numbers are published. With the exception of Next, which kicked off the festive reporting season, and with some disappointment at John Lewis, things have come in quite nicely.

For Tesco, growth was modest, but at least it's growth. Marks and Spencer has also found some forward momentum with its clothing sales, after at least five years of dismal figures and a perception that its clothing range was in a sort of inevitable decline.

You can read more about the winners and losers here. One of the factors that isn't clear from the reported numbers, of course, is how much they benefited from the absence of BHS. It closed its last store in August, meaning its custom was there to be picked up.

Among some interesting themes to emerge from this year's retail festivities is a shift on Black Friday. Retailers are getting a bit smarter at managing expectations around those discounts on the last Friday of November.

Their enthusiastic embrace of the US practice of post-Thanksgiving sales, imported and aggressively driven by Amazon, was an act of breath-taking folly, coming at the start of their most important selling month for maximising margin.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Marks and Spencer has found some forward momentum with its clothing sales

They have also struggled over the past eight years after the Great Recession at getting stock management right. Black Friday was just one reason why the pattern of sales has adjusted over the year, making it more difficult to predict throughput at the tills.

Helped by clever stock management technology, that seems to be improving, and so there's less need for pre-Christmas discounts - or at least, less need for deep discounts.

By contrast, remember two years ago, when Debenhams and Marks and Spencer were among those desperately trying to shift stock in flash sales through December.

Eating space

A mid-market department store, Debenhams has diversified away from clothing, and its figures this winter are strongest from beauty and (that horrible word) gifting.

It's also notable for being smart about its mix of online, mobile, premium delivery and click-and-collect - though every retailer has to be getting smart about these.

Debenhams has also gone in the same direction as the big shopping malls, with more space being handed over to eating.

Being much less smart is Asda. It's part of Walmart, so it doesn't join in the festive sales reporting season.

But the most recent market share assessment by Kantar Worldpanel shows its decline continues, with sales in the 12 weeks to 3 January down by 2.5% on last year.

Image copyright Reuters

That year saw the other big multiples find some success in countering the challenge from Aldi and Lidl, allied to that of falling grocery prices. Tesco and Morrisons both had big problems, partly from their poor mix of stores, and the latter's failure to break into convenience groceries.

Kantar's numbers show both have grown sales in the past quarter, though all of the big four have lost market share, at least slightly. Aldi is doing much better than Lidl at growth, up by 11% on last year, to its fellow German retailer's 7.5%.

But December is one month when shoppers tend to return to the familiar older shopping brands, with the final Friday before Christmas - the 23rd - seeing half of Britain's population reckoned to have visited a grocery store.

Fashion fail

Among other notable themes, those with overseas sales have flattered financial results due to translation of their foreign earnings into sterling. On the downside of that, they'll find inflationary pressures growing in their UK sales this year, with grocery now out of deflation.

And there's an increased move by shoppers to spoil themselves with up-market items, including premium own-brands, and a whole lot of Christmas Prosecco.

But then, there's some contradictory evidence on fashion, also coming from Kantar Worldpanel. It found clothing, footwear and accessories have together fallen by 2% in the year to 18 December.

That's the biggest fall since the summer of 2009. Indeed, there hasn't been a fall on that count until very recently.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Kantar Worldpanel found clothing, footwear and accessories had together fallen by 2% in the year to 18 December

Why? Glen Tooke, a retail analyst for Kantar, observes that stock control is not as good as some of the companies are claiming about their Christmas numbers. "These companies are stuck in a rigid, seasonal buying cycle which no longer reflects how consumers shop," he says.

"Gone are the days of buying a new winter coat come rain or shine: consumers are far more flexible in their approach to shopping and many retailers have been left behind. The result is piles of leftover stock these shops then have to sell off at vastly reduced prices."

'Peak stuff'

Perhaps one of the explanations for that changed buying behaviour comes from a retail academic at Aston Business School.

Prof Heiner Evanschitzky, director of the Aston Centre for Retail Insights, says the Christmas figures reflect both the shift to online and mobile shopping, along with a move by conventional shops towards offering more of an experience.

That's not just the magic of a visit to Santa's grotto, but can include the experience of a premium gastro-pub meal or of cooking your own meal from fresh ingredients. He says it certainly ought to involve shop staff having the training and confidence to engage with shoppers and to inspire them, leaving the shelf re-stocking until later.

He adds: "Credit card transaction data shows that we might have just reached 'peak stuff', meaning customers realise they've basically got everything they need and can use their extra cash on experiences, rather than simply buying more stuff. We are evolving into an experience economy."

He adds that one experience that's not being recommended is the arrival of the credit card bill that can't be afforded.

Personal debt is still rising in Britain, and real earnings look like being squeezed this year. The patriotic national mission to keep spending more and more comes at a cost. Eventually.

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