Belfast Telegraph

Why I hope it's tills that will ring in the new year

Retail statistics can often be so much smoke and mirrors. But there are bargains aplenty for local shoppers, says Donald McFetridge

As the Advent season draws to a close and the festivities proper begin, many traders are claiming that they are experiencing a last-minute rush to the tills. This is good news for retailers both here and in Scotland - the two regions of the United Kingdom which have seen the greatest increase in terms of footfall and customer-spend.

However, it is worth noting that a lot of the surveys published during the past week have been contradicting each other. Footfall figures are not always the best way of measuring consumer spending and one of the three surveys I read reported that consumer confidence was at an all-time low, while another (with a much smaller sample size, it has to be said) argued the opposite.

Statistics, rightly or wrongly, can be (and frequently are) manipulated to suit different purposes. The proof of the plum pudding will be in the eating on Christmas Day, when the tills are silent and the long night of waiting brings trading results in the morning.

As predicted, it was always going to be a late Christmas in terms of consumer spending. However, there's still today and tomorrow to go before we'll really know how well, or how badly, retailers have performed in what has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult trading periods on record.

Synovate, the retail research company, will publish statistics on Christmas Day, which shows how keen the interest is in ascertaining sales figures.

Traders in Belfast - and some other towns - have been reporting a last-minute splurge by consumers. Last weekend was expected to be the busiest shopping day on the High Street this Christmas, but many are hoping that today and tomorrow will put further icing on the cake as shoppers rush to complete their present-buying - hopefully with even further discounts as the shops switch out their lights until Boxing Day.

However, not all retailers are closing on Christmas Day. Marks -amp; Spencer is keeping in excess of 30 shops open nationwide on Christmas Day - something I predicted two years ago.

Among the winners this year will be the supermarkets - not unexpectedly. The supermarket behemoths always fare pretty well over the Christmas period and this one looks to be little different.

Waitrose, which is not in Northern Ireland, has been reporting extremely encouraging sales figures, particularly in its premium line products. What a shame we don't have it here yet, as the other supermarket groups appear pretty pedestrian by comparison.

Note: premium food products have been doing sterling business as consumers are spending less on 'big-ticket' items and trading up in terms of what they're putting on their dining tables this year.

Those retailers with an online presence will also perform better than those who do not make use of multi-channel retailing. This year, more than ever before, online retailing and m-commerce (mobile phone commerce) apps will prove to have had a dramatically negative impact on High Street trading when the results are finally announced in January.

However, not everyone can be a winner and retailers like HMV and Thorntons, for example, have huge warning signs in neon lights flashing over their doors.

We're likely, at best, to see further store rationalisation and job-losses in these two store groups or - even worse - another Woolworths scenario.

As we enter the new year and the trading results are posted, we'll know the truth of how good or bad Christmas has been for the retail sector. But one thing's for certain: 2012 will be an extremely difficult and punishing year. If consumers here have been spending in the final run-up to Christmas Day, they'll have less to spend in the January sales (remember them?), which started in October this year and look set to run until this time next year.

Next year will be one of sales for hard-pressed consumers; it will also be one of disappointment for a lot of retailers in the north and south of the island.

A number of them have already told me that they are basically hanging on by their coat-tails in the hope, not of making a bumper profit this Christmas, but that they will be able to meet their creditors and pay their bills in the new year.

Sadly, this is the way the retail world ends in 2011 as the tills grow silent - not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with the administrators beating their weary way to the doors of those who failed to make it through the bleak mid-winter.

Seasonal greetings and good luck to all my friends in the retail sector and to those looking for bargains.

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