Department store chain took £157.8m last week – 26.5% up on the same week a year ago
John Lewis has shrugged off industry reports of a lacklustre holiday season for retailers as it reported its best ever Christmas sales and the start of the Boxing Day sales drew record crowds.
Andy Street, managing director of the department store chain, said a series of bumper sales weeks totted up to a Christmas that was the “best in its history” as shoppers flocked to its stores to buy gifts such as iPads, coffee machines and handbags. Street said the sales picture had been “marginally better” than last year when the country was still in recession but confidently added: “December was a little stronger for everybody but I would predict that nobody will be near our numbers.”
Last week sales at the almost 150-year-old retailer smashed through £150m for the first time with takings at its 39 stores and website hitting £157.8m, a 26.5% increase on the same week a year ago. The employee-owned retailer’s sales have exceeded £570m over the last month, which included three record weeks.
“This is a story of John Lewis outperforming the high street,” said Street. “2012 has been very encouraging for us.” It had been a “tablet Christmas”, he said, with strong sales of gadgets such as the iPad and Kurio but also a late run on traditional gifts such as perfume, candles, purses and cufflinks.
With many store groups banking the bulk of their profits at Christmas, retail experts fear the tough economic environment continues to weigh on consumer confidence and hold back spending.
Helen Dickinson, director general of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said that despite John Lewis’s strong figures it “hasn’t been a boom time for UK retailers” with many Britons spending the same amount as last year: “There are big variations in individual retail performances but, when the final sums are done, total spending is likely to be up modestly on last year though only broadly in line with shop price inflation. Sales were hard-fought and often driven by discounts.”
Dickinson said the Christmas rush had come even later than usual as hard-pressed customers held out for bargains. The frugal mindset helped explain the huge Boxing Day crowds with some prospective shoppers setting out in the middle of the night to beat the rush.
At the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, the first bargain hunters arrived at 1am to secure pole position for the Next sale. The fashion giant does not discount outside its official end-of-season sales, so attracts crowds with more than 2,000 customers waiting by 6am, when the retailer opened for business.
At Meadowhall in Sheffield, which attracted an estimated 150,000 visitors over the day, lines started forming at 2.30am as shoppers vied to be first through the door when stores such as Debenhams, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer opened.
The crowds were even bigger in the West End of London, where an estimated 800,000 shoppers – buoyed by an influx of high-spending Chinese shoppers – joined the hunt for bargains in famous stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty. More than 2,500 people queued round the block to be first into Selfridges on Oxford Street, which was offering discounts of up to 75% on designer labels such as Alexander McQueen, Prada, Céline and Yves Saint Laurent. In the first hour of trading, sales had reached £1.5m, putting Selfridges on course for record takings at its four UK stores. The New West End Company, which represents retailers in the major shopping district, predicted £50m would be taken over the course of the day.
With its “never knowingly undersold” policy, John Lewis is forced to cut prices to match deals in competitors’ stores, but Street suggested there had been less discounting before Christmas: “Never knowingly undersold always costs us but I can say categorically it has not cost us more this year. Our discounting is in response to others so I think there was less.”
With the internet casting a bigger and bigger shadow over the high street, retailers are reporting huge increases in online sales this year as widespread ownership of tablets and smartphones changes the way Britons shop. John Lewis said that in the weeks before Christmas a third of its sales were logged via its website while on Christmas Day the number of visitors increased 24%.
Jeremy Fennell, the head of e-commerce at Currys and PC World, also reported a huge spike in traffic, with a 50% increase in visitors to its websites on Christmas Day (although shopping peaked between 7pm and 8pm suggesting Britons logged off to enjoy the EastEnders and Downton Abbey Christmas specials). “We are seeing more customers hitting our sites to take advantage of the top sale offers. However, we still expect high footfall in stores from Boxing Day onwards,” said Fennell.