Thought leadership

Christmas sales results for retailers are rolling in and they are a mixed bag. Some retailers had a cracking Christmas, while for some, 2019 was a bit of a turkey.

For November and December overall, total retail sales fell, according to industry body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) But some retailers, including the discounters, were full of festive cheer. So, of the results in so far, who are the winners and losers?

Who did well?

Next lifted its profit forecast after better than expected sales over the Christmas trading period. The company’s full-price sales rose by 5.2% from 27 October to 28 December, 1.1% ahead of its own expectations.

It said that colder weather in November might have helped its sales performance.

Tesco boss Dave Lewis said the chain had “performed well” in a “subdued” UK market. Sales fell slightly for the UK’S biggest supermarket chain in the months that include the crucial Christmas period.

But stronger takings in the weeks just before Christmas helped bolster performance. Greggs did so well during 2019 that it decided to give thousands of staff a £300 bonus in January.

This success continued over the festive period, with chief executive Roger Whiteside saying the bakery chain had “delivered a strong finish to what has been an exceptional year”. Sales at established stores rose 8.7% in the three months to 28 December.

Aldi was one of the discounters that had a strong Christmas. Discounters have been steadily eating the market share of more established supermarkets, and this trend continued over the festive period.

Aldi’s total UK sales in the four weeks to 24 December rose 7.9% from a year before, although it did not give a like-for-like comparison. It also sold 55 million mince pies.

Lidl had the highest percentage increase in sales growth for bricks and mortar supermarkets over the same period, with its sales up 10.8%, according to the research firm Kantar.

Lidl and Aldi had their highest-ever combined Christmas market share of 13.7% – more than treble the figure in 2009.

Oxfam said it saw its best festive period in eight years, with sales up 7% in the week before Christmas. The charity chain put it down to shoppers seeking out “ethical and second-hand products that protect the planet and raise money for the world’s poorest people”. Christmas cracker sales jumped 55%.

Who had a tough Christmas?

John Lewis warned that its staff bonus may be in doubt as it reported Christmas sales at its department stores were down 2% on a like-for-like basis.

At the same time, the group’s Waitrose division saw sales rise 0.4%, which chair Sir Charlie Mayfield described as “a good sales performance” in a “weak grocery market”. In a surprise announcement, the partnership also said department chain managing director Paula Nickolds would step down in February.

Marks & Spencer said it had overestimated demand for tight-fitting men’s clothing in the run-up to Christmas. M&S boss Steve Rowe said “disappointing” issues, such as a surplus of men’s skinny jeans, held the firm back from a stronger performance over the festive period. In what is a perennial problem for M&S, weak clothing sales were offset by higher food sales.

Sainsbury’s blamed lower Christmas sales on fewer people buying toys. Chief executive Mike Coupe said toy sales had fallen by 20% across the market in the last two years.

While grocery sales actually increased by 0.4%, poor sales in the division that includes Argos, owned by Sainsbury’s, weighed on the company’s overall performance. Morrisons, meanwhile, said its sales fell over the Christmas period amid “challenging” trading conditions.

Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, said the results suggested that Morrisons had been “outmanoeuvred” by its competitors. “Shrinking sales demonstrate the fiercely competitive food sector,” he added.

Did consumers tighten their belts?

According to the BRC, consumers were “both more cautious and more conscientious as they went about their Christmas shopping”.

The timing of Black Friday, which was relatively late in 2019 and also in 2015, can eat into Christmas shopping, a BRC spokesman said. This is due to people combining Black Friday and Christmas shopping, he said.

Some analysts said that supermarkets also had a tough time due to consumers tightening their belts.

“There was no sign of the post-election rush many had hoped for in the final weeks before Christmas, with shoppers carefully watching their budgets,” said Kantar’s Fraser McKevitt. Tesco’s Mr Lewis said the UK market as a whole had “clearly been challenging”.

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