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Christmas trading ’wars’ won by retailers and self-seeking shoppers, says Synovate


UNITED KINGDOM — Final figures from Synovate Retail Performance reveal that the number of shoppers in non-food stores over December (which included the final Saturday; 2nd January 2010) was significantly down on December 2008. Synovate’s Retail Traffic Index registered a 5.5% year-on-year decrease in December in the UK, far below the 1.8% increase it had predicted for the month. Likewise the month-on-month rise of 27.0% against November was well below the 32.4% forecast. None of the regions showed a year-on-year rise in store traffic, something that hadn’t happened before in the decade.

Synovate analyst Tim Denison explains: "On the face of it the footfall numbers are very disappointing especially given that December 2008 wasn’t a strong month either; thus flattering any comparisons. However, there were good reasons for this fall in shopper numbers and this year was different on several counts. Firstly, as we know, people have got accustomed to doing their gift shopping closer and closer towards Christmas, in the knowledge that, in past years, retailers have reduced prices and even started their winter Sales before the ’big day’. This trend was even more noticeable this year despite us warning that there would be no ’giveaway’ sales.

"Secondly, the onset of wintry weather in the middle of the month, which lasted right up to Christmas in parts of the country, made last-minute shopping difficult, leaving some gift buying incomplete and some shoppers caught out. Thirdly, and most importantly perhaps, because retailers had not bought the same high levels of stock that they had in past years, the breadth and depth of discounting was far lower this year. Consequently the waves of bargain-hunters simply did not take to the streets before Christmas as they did in 2008 and before. Finally, there are some signs that the strong shopper activity after Christmas was fuelled by a new type of shopper behaviour; the cult of self. The thinking seems to be; I’ve had a tough year, so now I’m doing a little shopping for me.

“Those that were out and about before Christmas, we believe, bought as freely as we would expect given the general economic climate we are in. Less discounting will have helped protect margins, so despite fewer shoppers we expect that the trading figures being released over the next fortnight will confirm it has been a solid Christmas for most multiple retailers. Indeed we stand by our original projection that December like-for-like sales will be around 4% higher than in 2008, despite significantly lower stock levels.”

December 2009 should be considered remarkable in one other respect. Over the course of time, the peak in store traffic just before Christmas has become less pronounced and a greater share of the month’s traffic has come after December 25th. This year, for the first time since Synovate records began well over a decade ago, the week following Christmas (w/c 27th December) proved to be the busiest week of the month and, indeed, of the whole year. Store traffic levels for that week were 4.1% stronger than the last full trading week before Christmas (w/c 13th December), traditionally the number one traffic week of the year, something that hasn’t happened before.

Denison continues; "Given that retailers had not succumbed to starting their Sales before Christmas, we knew that the last week of the year would be busy. However, with many retailers electing to launch their winter Sales on the 26th, to benefit from full trading hours rather than Sunday’s constrained times, we weren’t sure how this would impact on the final week. It seems very little. Monday 28th December transpired to be the most crowded shopping day of the year, 1.2% busier even than December 19th, the last Saturday before Christmas.

“If what we have seen in 2009 is repeated next year, it might signify the end of December being all about buying gifts for others, building to a final crescendo before Christmas Day and more about seeing a traffic peak after the 25th, with people spending heavily on themselves and their homes. At this stage it is too early to be sure whether weekly events this December have been a one-off, affected by the downturn in the economy, or something more long-lasting driven by attitudinal changes; perhaps a new cult of self.”


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