Retailers suffer worst trading conditions for 25 years

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The high street is suffering its most difficult trading conditions for at least 25 years with a "vast number" of retailers expected to go bust in the New Year, figures showed yesterday.

The research came as administrators at Woolworths said it would close all of its stores by the first week of the New Year, with the loss of nearly 30,000 jobs, unless a last-minute buyer was found for the business.

It is expected to become the most high profile of a long list of retail failures, as the recession bites.

The business group CBI warned yesterday that shops were suffering from their weakest trading since at least 1983. The warning was just one of a number to highlight the deteriorating state of the economy.

:: The number of people out of work rose by 137,000 to 1.86 million in the three months to October – the highest level since 1997.

:: Minutes showed that the Bank of England considered cutting interest rates by more than 1 percentage point earlier this month but did not because they feared it would cause the pound to collapse.

:: The pound sunk to a new low of against the euro, falling 2.4 per cent to €1.08

The CBI figures showed that 67 per cent of 20,000 shops it polled in its respected monthly survey said sales volumes were lower in the first half of December compared with a year ago.

The number of retailers reporting a fall in sales versus a rise fell to the weakest reading since the survey began in 1983.

Nick Bubb, retail analyst at Pali, predicted that the poor state of the high street would lead to yet more businesses going bust in the New Year, as they struggle to attract consumers and can no longer afford to pay their rents.

"There will be a vast number of administrations in the next few weeks," he said.

Neville Khan, the administrator of Woolworths, admitted it had been difficult to break the news to the company's 22,000 permanent staff and 5,000 temporary workers.

Up to 500 staff at its warehouses will also lose their jobs. Many more jobs are at risk in the supply chain, with 500 firms owed money by Woolworths.

The stores will close in stages starting on December 27, with the final store closed on January 5.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "This is a terrible blow to Woolworth's staff and to the firms and jobs that rely on the chain's custom. It will also mean a further dent to business and economic confidence and less spending power in the economy."

The administrators plan to pump 50 million products into the stores in the run up to this weekend in an attempt to persuade shoppers to visit the stores for a final time.

The X-Factor single – Alexandra Burke's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah – will be on sale for £3.17, a discount to the standard £3.99 at most shops, as part of the "closing down sale" which is likely to see the price of many goods cut by 70 per cent.

Other retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Boots, announced yet more discounts yesterday. M&S is knocking 30 per cent off all knitwear.

While the High Street has suffered, online retailers have enjoyed a record year and experts expect today (thu) to be another busy day.

Shoppers need to order their goods by the end of the day at several retail websites to guarantee delivery by Christmas. These include Borders and Boots, but other online stores have set the deadlinen at midnight on Friday.

Most economists believe that the cut in VAT from 17.5 per cent to 15 per cent and the swathe of discounts have failed to save the high street from bearing the brunt of the impending recession.

Andy Clarke, chairman of the CBI distributive trades panel, and retail director of Asda, said: "The next week will be nail-bitingly tense for retailers as they pin their hopes on a last-minute Christmas dash.

"We have already seen many stores bringing forward their sales and discounting goods deeply in order to entice customers into the shops. But with shoppers continuing to watch their pennies, it seems many are holding off doing their Christmas shopping in the hope of bagging a bargain. continues here

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