Sales up in London, but rest of UK short on cheer, as retailers pin hopes on final ‘bonus’ weekend
The panic was not yet at last-helicopter-out-of-Saigon levels, but those crowding the doors of Selfridges in the West End of London before its late Sunday opening had the concentrated, wary look of people only too aware their Christmas shopping options were diminishing by the hour.
“I’m very focused – it’s just a question of finding this one thing, buying it and getting out,” said Nicky Clarke, a 40-year-old mechanic who had travelled from his home in Newark, Nottinghamshire, to locate a particular present for his girlfriend that proved unavailable during his main Christmas expedition to Lincoln on Saturday. “By the time I realised I couldn’t get it near home it was too late to order it online,” he said. “I found out Selfridges had it in stock, so I came down on the train this morning.”
It is Clarke and his last-ditch ilk who, retailers hope, could make this Christmas merely bearable rather than downright depressing, as seemed likely from uninspiring footfall and sales figures earlier in the month.
The British Retail Consortium has reported national shopper numbers “consistently down on 12 months ago”, thus pinning all the more importance on this final weekend.
Saturday at least appeared hugely busy at shopping centres from Bluewater in Kent to Union Square in Aberdeen, with forecasters predicting a £5bn spend over the two days. A number of retailers also chose to open stores from midnight in a bid to make up for any sales lost to the limited Sunday opening hours.
Early on Monday morning dozens of shoppers flocked to Marks and Spencer Simply Food in West Wickham, south London, when the store opened at midnight to stock up on last-minute goods.
Most customers had chosen to visit the store for late night shopping in a bid to avoid the massive queues expected on Christmas Eve.
Hayley Rose, 24, said: “I visited the store earlier in the day and you couldn’t move because of the number of people. It was chaos.
“I prefer to come at midnight as it’s less stressful. I would encourage other stores to open at midnight in the run up to Christmas.”
But some were left disappointed with the lack of choice available on the shelves.
Rebecca Adams, 41, said: “I would usually have come first thing in the morning on Christmas Eve but when I heard it was opening at midnight I thought it would mean I’d have a great choice as the shelves would have been filled.
“But I’m disappointed with the amount if stock on the shelves. If I’d have known it would have been like this I wouldn’t have come at this time. I would’ve saved it until the morning.”
Christmas Day last year fell on a Sunday, while this year there is in effect an extra weekend for people to spend their money.
This, and the tendency for more and more shops to offer discounts immediately before Christmas, particularly online, rather than wait for the Boxing Day sales, has pushed the seasonal dash to the shops later than ever, with many hard-up consumers holding their nerve in the hope of bargains.
If they do stay away, it may prove disastrous for the high street. A report on Monday says 140 retail groups are in a critical financial position, with a poor Christmas potentially enough to send them into insolvency.
The research, by the business recovery group Begbies Traynor, also estimates more than 13,700 retailers are in “significant” distress.
As ever, London is the exception. Sunday’s queues to even enter the Louis Vuitton concession in Selfridges may seem anomalous amid reports that twice the number of British households as last year will rely on food banks this Christmas.
Of course, much of this is down to visitors. A retail economy already semi-detached from the rest of the UK, London is further boosted at Christmas by tourists. The capital has been less affected by the slow shopping buildup seen elsewhere, said a spokesman for New West End Company, which represents retailers in Oxford, Regent and Bond streets.
He said: “We’re quite fortunate with the tourists that come in during December, which are mainly British at this time of year. A lot of people say they didn’t come down during the summer because of the Olympics, so they’re going at Christmas time, which has worked well for us in terms of retail sales.
“We’ve had a really good couple of weeks. It’s been building since early December. We’ve been double-digits up most weekends last month for footfall, against the same period last year. We report monthly on sales, but we get updates every week and that’s anywhere between 2% and 10% up.”
But even in London many people were being careful. Despite his last-minute dash to the capital, Clarke said his overall spending was considerably down on last year. “I’ve bought a house, which needs a lot doing to it, so I’ve taken a month off work to get it at least partly ready for Christmas. There’s been a lot of belt-tightening all round.”
In the crowd awaiting the opening of John Lewis down the road, Felicity Orme, 24, was, like many of her generation, looking forward to a modest Christmas. “For my friends who have also graduated quite recently it can be difficult, particularly with rents so high,” she said.
Orme had taken time off from her job playing the harp to guests at a five-star London hotel to buy a last-minute present for her mother, soon to arrive from the family home in Congleton, Cheshire.
“She’s told me that all she wants is an umbrella and some chocolates. I’m in luck.”
CBS-owned music service, which has struggled in downturn, is also scrapping radio streaming offering in most countries
CBS-owned Last.fm is to put part of its music service behind a paywall in countries including the US and UK, and is scrapping its radio streaming offering altogether in most countries.
Last.fm, which has struggled in the downturn, said that from 15 January it intends to put its desktop radio service behind a paywall in the UK, US and Germany.
It has already done this in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.
However, the free ad-funded online streaming service, which is the core of Last.fm’s business and is used by tens of millions of listeners each month, is unaffected.
In Last.fm’s 2011 financial results advertising accounted for 70% of its £7.3m total global revenues and subscriptions 23%.
Last.fm, which reported a pre-tax loss of £4.4m last year, said that it is completely closing its radio service in “all other countries”, and will only offer a subscription service from 15 January.
Listener numbers in markets outside Last.fm’s eight biggest countries – which include Spain, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Turkey and China – are thought only to number up to 20,000.
Last.fm, which was acquired by CBS for $280m in May 2007, admitted that economic conditions have forced the company to look at its business model in different markets.
The company said it is not able to provide radio streaming in the non-core countries “even to subscribers, due to licensing restrictions”.
“We will continue to look at the state of the market in other territories and hope to expand again in future as it becomes more viable,” said Last.fm. “When it can be done so economically we hope to be able to open streaming to a wider audience in the future.”
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The Pompey Supporters’ Trust hope to take over Portsmouth before Christmas after signing a conditional agreement.
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Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency had been expected to award the £600m driving licences and tax discs contract in October
Hundreds of post offices face an uncertain future after the award of a £600m contract to provide driving licences and tax discs was delayed by the government, say MPs and unions.
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) had been expected to award the contract in October, with the Post Office and bill payment service Paypoint submitting bids, but it will not be decided until the end of November.
It is feared that if the contract ends up in the hands of a private contractor new laws would have to be passed for the company to issue tax discs.
Post office unions believe the uncertainty is hurting its members, who rely on up to 20% of their revenues on the DVLA contract, which ends in March 2013.
George Thomson, general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters said: “The DVLA contract is essential to the future of our post offices.
“The ongoing delay in announcing a decision on the contract is having a highly unsettling effect on the national post office network and on individual subpostmasters’ ability to plan for the future.
“Certainly, if the contract isn’t awarded exclusively to the Post Office, it would be catastrophic for the UK’s post offices – thousands of branches may be forced to close and the government’s policy on the post office network will be left in tatters.”
Ministers have consistently said they want the Post Office to become the front office for government, with the transport department saying it should act “as a natural home for the delivery of face-to-face government services and helping citizens interact with government online.”
However, shadow Postal affairs minister, Ian Murray warned the government is failing in its commitment.
He said: “Post Offices are under real strain at the moment and this was a real opportunity to give them a boost and for the government to show how seriously they want to support it.
“I’m surprised by how long it’s been delayed when there are only two bidders.
“However, I have been told that a legislative change would have to go through if the contract was handed to Paypoint to sell tax discs. I hope that’s not the reason for the delay.”
He said he has written to the Department for Transport, which makes the final decision, asking for an explanation for the delay.
Politicians have been inundated with letters from constituents calling for the DVLA contract to be renewed with the Post Office, as many fear it could lead to further closures.
Mike Weir, SNP MP for Angus, said: “I cannot remember a campaign like this. A really surprising amount of people feel strongly about this and I would hope the government and DVLA are watching.
“Hopefully the delay could be a ray of light as the sit up and take notice of the support for the Post Offices.”
Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Rosalind Scott, agreed and said the topic has been discussed at her local council, leading her to raise the issue in the House of Lords.
She said: “Post offices hold things together and the danger is its like a game of giant Jenga; you pull one block out and the whole thing falls down.
“What post offices want is some certainty about the way forward. They want to plan ahead like all businesses and know what to invest in. It’s beginning to get desperately close to the wire with a decision made at Christmas over a contract that starts in March.”
A spokesman for the DVLA said: “We have completed the evaluation process and we will announce the contract award in due course following final governance steps. We hope to make an announcement during November.”
South Korean exports have risen for the first time in four months, raising hope that the economy could be starting to recover.
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For politicians weaned on well-defined episodes of recession and recovery, this long, slow and difficult economic retrenchment will require a change of policy – and language
Politicians on both sides of the divide reached for the Bumper Book of Cliches last week as they reacted to the news that the double-dip recession was over.
For George Osborne, it was evidence that his policies had put us “on the right track”; while Ed Balls – whose analysis of the economy has repeatedly been proved correct over the past two years – insisted this was “no time for complacency” (is there ever a time?).
While Labour was desperate not to be seen as dismissive of the strongest quarter’s GDP growth in five years, Osborne was scrupulously careful to avoid triumphalism, attributing the long-delayed recovery to “the hard work of millions of people and businesses”. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Treasury officials were reminding everyone that strong early GDP estimates can be revised down, and that growth was boosted by one-off factors – not least the Olympics – that won’t be repeated in coming quarters.
These carefully choreographed pronouncements reflect the fact that today’s politicians are being forced to rewrite the script as they go along, to adjust to a new economic reality.
Just how much has changed emerged in two other pieces of news last week, away from the short-term noise of one quarter’s numbers.
The first was the Office for National Statistics’ latest report on the country’s wellbeing. David Cameron has asked the ONS to look into how best to lift the lid off the traditional measures of economic output and gauge families’ life satisfaction – what used to be known as the elusive “feelgood factor”.
In last week’s study, the latest in a series, the ONS found that net national income per head, which experts including Joseph Stiglitz have found to be a better indicator of families’ living standards than raw GDP, had declined by more than 13% from its pre-crisis peak by the summer of this year – far sharper than the 4% drop in GDP.
There are a number of reasons for this, not least the clobbering many people’s incomes have taken from rising inflation, caused by rocketing commodity prices and the VAT increase. And with inflation drifting down (though it may blip up again this autumn as fuel prices rise), the squeeze should start to ease slightly in the coming months.
But the overall message was that even though unemployment has risen less dramatically than in previous recessions, living standards have taken a drastic hit. Many households up and down the country are having to permanently adjust their hopes for the future – downwards.
Sir Mervyn King made much the same point in his wide-ranging speech in Wales last week. Aside from a dash of teary-eyed Olympics nostalgia, from which it seems no one is immune (“recall that balmy night in late July … the sound of Welsh children singing Cwm Rhondda on that beautiful beach in Rhossili filled the Olympic stadium”), the Bank of England governor used his appearance to warn that the UK, along with much of the industrialised world, may be working through the after-effects of the crisis for years.
“After a period of lopsided expansion, with growing trade deficits and debt levels, and a collapse of their banking systems, advanced economies across the world are facing a huge adjustment. Such is the scale of the global adjustment required that the generation we hope to inspire may live under its shadow for a long time to come,” he said. He talked about a “downward correction of expectations about future incomes and wealth” that will inevitably change consumer behaviour and slowly start to shift the shape of the economy.
It’s hard to know how much the productive capacity of the economy has been damaged by those years of “lopsided” growth; but an army of export champions won’t spring up overnight to replace jobs lost on boarded-up high streets, and Ford’s announcement that it is laying off up to 1,400 workers as demand from the continent shrinks demonstrates the scale of the challenge.
But the governor clearly believes we may be facing a long-drawn-out reckoning. In practical terms, that may mean thousands more loans go sour, and businesses go under, as it becomes increasingly clear we are not destined for a textbook recovery and instead face a period of sluggish growth – what Danny Gabay of consultancy Fathom calls “bumping along the bottom”.
For politicians weaned on boom and bust, recession and recovery, such a long period of pain will require a marked change of policies – and language. “Pre-distribution” is Ed Miliband’s first stab at a response to an economic world in which growth is weak or non-existent and government is too busy paying down the debts of the past to borrow any more from the future – though what it means in policy terms is, so far, harder to pin down.
Cameron’s remark that “the good news will keep on coming” at prime minister’s questions last week sounded distinctly like the clapped-out old politics of riding recovery to seal an election victory. But Osborne’s more measured response to the GDP figures suggests that he’s well aware the improvement may be short-lived; that even if it comes, it may not improve families’ fortunes as much as they hope; and that in order to win over voters, he will have to stress instead the long-term, more nebulous project of building a better economy.
The panicked “back us or we’ll turn into Greece” rhetoric of the 2010 election can hardly be applied to an economy that’s been flatlining for years. Instead, expect to see politicians at both ends of the spectrum reaching for a different vocabulary – stressing aspiration, wellbeing and fairness over clear-cut, mathematically measurable concepts such as recession and growth.