Not such a Merry Christmas for supermarkets

The festive period provided no let up for the beleaguered supermarket sector.

Christmas retail trading figures began to arrive this week. Among the winners was House of Fraser: underlying sales were up 8% over the six weeks to 3 January, underpinned by 30% growth in online revenue.

Next grew sales by 3% in the two months to Christmas Eve, while John Lewis was another solid performer, with underlying sales up 4.8% in the five weeks to 27 December. Its food division Waitrose was a winner in the food segment.

However, J Sainsbury revealed the first dip in Christmas sales in a decade. A sales spike due to "Black Friday" was a key trend this year. A mid-December survey for the Confederation of British Industry showed the highest sales growth over the two prior weeks for 26 years.

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What the commentators said

Waitrose is also benefiting from another major shift in shopping habits, said Chris Blackhurst in the Evening Standard. People are increasingly buying "a little and often rather than a lot and all at once" as they are tired of the hassle of traipsing round huge hypermarkets.

So Waitrose, with its emphasis on small metro stores, is cashing in. Sainsbury's and Tesco never saw this coming leaving them with a surplus of huge empty out-of-town locations. Their neglect of this trend "must rank as one of the mysteries of our age in business".

Meanwhile, Black Friday is becoming a problem for the entire sector, said James Moore in The Independent. Thanks to this discount day, an import from the US it is the day after Thanksgiving "it's not only a few hapless shoppers that got bruised".

Many people rushed to exploit the day's promotions and thus did their Christmas shopping in November. So "retailers ended up cannibalising their own sales". No wonder John Lewis's Andy Street now wants his rivals to reconsider whether it is such a good idea.

Andrew Van Sickle

Andrew is the editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He grew up in Vienna and studied at the University of St Andrews, where he gained a first-class MA in geography & international relations.

After graduating he began to contribute to the foreign page of The Week and soon afterwards joined MoneyWeek at its inception in October 2000. He helped Merryn Somerset Webb establish it as Britain’s best-selling financial magazine, contributing to every section of the publication and specialising in macroeconomics and stockmarkets, before going part-time.

His freelance projects have included a 2009 relaunch of The Pharma Letter, where he covered corporate news and political developments in the German pharmaceuticals market for two years, and a multiyear stint as deputy editor of the Barclays account at Redwood, a marketing agency.

Andrew has been editing MoneyWeek since 2018, and continues to specialise in investment and news in German-speaking countries owing to his fluent command of the language.