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Shops hope to cash in on early sales

THE women of Ireland are counting the pennies and refusing to spend this Christmas, and a last-minute surge in shopping has done little to lift the gloom among retailers.

But there is going to be a massive spending spree from St Stephen's Day, retailers predict.

Footfall figures are up on last year but shoppers have been looking, not buying, in the run up to Christmas.

And comparisons with Christmas 2010 are to some extent meaningless, given the impact of last year's big freeze.

But it looks as though the sales, which start at all the major department stores on St Stephen's Day, will be the biggest in years.

Retail sales are up a marginal 0.68 per cent compared with December last year and Retail Excellence Ireland (REI) says it is clear that many customers have postponed fashion and big-ticket shopping trips until the sales.

But the retail body, which has carried out an exhaustive survey among 400 retail companies, has found it is women who are calling the shots this Christmas, shopping very cautiously and buying for function rather than fashion.

The reduction in Christmas parties has hit women's fashion and footwear sales hard but that also suggests Mna na hEireann will hit the sales with a vengeance.

Arnotts, Debenhams, Brown Thomas and Clerys in Dublin city centre and Dundrum Town Centre will open their doors on St Stephen's Day, promising massive reductions. Stores in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo, Kilkenny and Letterkenny will follow suit.

In contrast to last year, the big department stores held their nerve in 2011 and did not heavily discount in the run up to Christmas -- though smaller women's fashion outlets did start sales last week.

Dundrum opens from 10am to 7pm on December 26. NEXT keeps its tradition of opening early at 6am, while River Island will be open from 8am. Other stores and restaurants open on St Stephen's Day from 10am onwards including House of Fraser, Zara, LK Bennett, Harvey Nichols, Penneys, Karen Millen, Fitzpatricks, BT2, GAP, and Sunglass Hut.

David Fitzsimons, CEO of REI, said: "Sales prices being offered countrywide are the lowest they have ever been. Many sectors, especially furniture, electrical, home, footwear, fashion and the department stores, are offering some of the deepest discounts ever offered to stimulate consumer activity and sales.

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"We are at the bottom of the market cycle and an obvious result of that is that retailers are discounting heavily to win sales and market share."

B&Q Ireland are offering up to 75 per cent off on clearance Christmas lines and have launched their lowest-ever kitchen, bed and bath prices; Arnotts' 'Handbags at Dawn' campaign will witness handbags and accessories at up to 70 per cent off; Carraig Donn is offering up to 70 per cent on many items; Awear is offering 50 per cent off on an extensive range of sale stock; and Clerys is offering 50 per cent off on an extensive range of stock and have some one-off offers including beds, TVs and white goods for €1 each.

The REI survey also found some intriguing changes in behaviour. We have, it seems, begun to accept our fate in terms of the economic downturn.

"Many retailers commented that the tone of the customer is much improved on 2010 when some behaved aggressively. This year has brought the realisation that everyone is in the same boat and that retailers are doing their best for customers and are working hard to survive," the survey pointed out.

Both ladies' and men's fashion are down. Men are not spending and women have had few social occasions to buy for. Jewellery is down. People are buying silver rather than gold. Footwear is struggling, but health and beauty is performing respectably and will enjoy much-improved sales figures this Christmas.

But books, toys, games and music are flatlining because of increased purchasing online and there are few "must-have" releases to boost sales.

Pharmacy is mixed but the electrical sector has enjoyed better trading because of the launch of Saorview, and many people are buying tablet computers.

The big purchase of food and alcohol was not due until after the survey took place, but it appears that while sales of turkey and ham were holding up well, people are skimping on the trimmings. Low-cost alcohol in the supermarkets means intense competition for off-licences.

The launch of iPhone4s has boosted the phone shops but we are not eating out much, with hot beverage and restaurant sales down 3 per cent -- even compared with the big freeze of 2010.

Art and craft shops have done well -- perhaps indicative of the surge in low-cost hobbies and crafts like knitting.

One noticeable trend is that while gift-card sales have held up reasonably well there has still been a sharp decline since 2008. An interesting trend is the fact that some retailers are receiving lots of gift cards back in recent weeks. Redemption rates have surged and consumers are clearing their drawers and "recycling" old gift cards by passing them along to friends and relatives as gifts.

There is also anecdotal evidence that while consumers still buy gift cards at the big department stores, they are reluctant to do the same at smaller independent retailers because they fear they may be shut down before the token can be redeemed.

Cash, meanwhile, is king and there has been a noticeable drop-off in credit-card spending this Christmas.

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