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News - 14 January 2005

The Ether beats the High Street

While high street shops suffered a dismal Christmas, internet sales jumped 23% compared with Christmas 2003, making it the most successful Christmas trading period since the invention of the internet

Internet traffic directed at shopping websites increasing from just over 10% in August to more than 12% in December. The top 20 UK online retail websites for the month included eBay, Amazon, Kelkoo and Argos, as well as the websites of several major high street computer and electronics chains like Currys, Comet and PC World performed strongly throughout the pre-Christmas period.

Internet sales now account for 6.3% of total spending and UK customers are amongst the most enthusiastic in Europe. Many commentators expect interent sales to grow by as much as 40% in the coming year and broadband and computer ownership continues to penetrate UK households and sales are expected to reach £5bn by December 2005. 

A string of High Street shops like Marks & Spencer, Woolworths and WH Smith have indicated that their performance was way below expectations and even success stories like Next that fared comparatively well have cut their profit forecasts in anticipation of continuing weakness in consumer spending well into 2005. Like for like sales fell by 0.4% according to the British Retail Consortium making this the worst Christmas trading period for ten years.

In Brighton & Hove retail performance was much the same as the national picture. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the city’s vital independent retail sector was down between 10% and 15% on 2003, which was not a good year. The outlook for the next 6 to 9 months is bleak for retailers. House prices continue to decline and there is a fear that interests rates, although unchanged this month, may well go up again which will further depress consumer confidence. Then in April retailers will have to start paying higher Uniform Business Rates that will go up by 12% on average (and many will suffer a further 17% increase in 2006). We can expect to see shops changing hands rapidly in the next few months and the City Centre Business Forum will be closely monitoring retail vacancy rates and footfall to gauge the effect of two poor Christmases in a row on a fragile part of the city’s economy.

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