Christmas Retailers: winners and losers

In January, the British Retail Consortium declared 2018 the worst Christmas since the financial crash in 2008. Sales were flat, with year-on-year growth sitting at 0%. In-store sales were down while online growth slowed. Consumer spending overall was up just 1.8%, the lowest rate since March 2016.

That has led to profit warnings, disappointing sales and in the worst instance HMV going into administration for the second time. But all in all it could have been much worse. And amid the darkness there have been a few glimmering beacons of hope, largely thanks to last minute Christmas shopping and online sales.

High street hope

Let’s start with the bright spots on the high street. Like-for-like sales at John Lewis were up 1% after the department store stuck to its usual blockbuster spot and splashed lots of dosh on a 140-second ad about Elton John (The Boy & The Piano by Adam&EveDDB).

The main campaign video racked up 50 million views on social media – 16% more than last year’s Moz the Monster campaign. 

Heavy discounting around Black Friday and in the run-up to Christmas no doubt played its part in the sales uplift, which simultaneously led to John Lewis issuing a profit warning for the year ahead as it is forced to price match due to its ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ price promise.

Commercial over emotional

Marks & Spencer, with its “unashamedly commercial” approach, had the opposite outcome, with like-for-like sales across food, and clothing and home down 2.1% and 2.4% respectively but no warning on profit.

In spite of the sales dip, it claims the product focus paid off and that customers “responded well”, with record sales of products that featured in the ads. That is to be expected but perhaps it would have seen wider sales rise with a more brand-led approach. The drop in sales was instead down to low consumer confidence, mild weather, Black Friday and widespread discounting from rivals.

Where M&S did see good growth was online, with a 14% increase in sales.

Next is another retailer that benefited from a big boost in online sales (up 15.2% year on year), while total Christmas sales were up 1.5% (Next’s update was just a trading statement so no like-for-like figures) thanks to a late surge in shopping in December.

However, this may have been at the expense of its high street stores, where sales were down 9.2%, adding Next to the list of retailers that have had to reduce their profit guidance for the year ahead.

Having made the decision to ditch the “vanity project” TV ad in favour of much shorter ads and experiential activity in-store, Debenhams failed to “create a true gift destination” and “capitalise on the social shopping trend”, like it said it wanted to do, and reported a sales decline of 5.7%.


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