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Winter fashion sales slump as shorts weather continues

John Lewis reports figures down 13% on last year, while ice-cream sales rise by 25% as winter coats fill stores.

The warm autumn weather is threatening to wreak havoc on the high street with fashion retailers complaining of dire sales as Britons put off buying winter jackets and jumpers.

autumn weather

With some parts of the country enjoying temperatures of 26C this week it was still shorts-and-sandals weather at a time when stores are packed with heavy winter coats and cashmere jumpers. Such is the mismatch between the climate and clothing on sale that John Lewis revealed yesterday that takings in its fashion departments had tumbled more than 13% on last year’s levels.

The difficult trading conditions are reinforced by data from business advisory firm BDO. According to its fashion sales tracker, which monitors the performance of 40 clothing chains including Oasis, Karen Millen and White Stuff, like-for-like fashion store sales dropped 11.5% in the week to last Sunday. Some retailers including House of Fraser, M&S, Hobbs and Banana Republic are already running selective promotions in a bid to persuade shoppers to buy.

“With children now back at school thoughts would usually turn to winter essentials, however the unseasonably warmer days are delaying these purchases,” said John Lewis buying director, Johnathan Marsh. Shopper numbers were also down on the previous year, he said.

According to the Met Office the UK has so far enjoyed the driest September in over 50 years. “The first half of September has been exceptionally dry across much of the UK and temperatures for many areas have also been well above average,” said the Met Office’s Dan Williams. The warm spell continued this week with the temperature topping 26C in Wigginholt, West Sussex on Thursday, making it the hottest place in the country.

John Lewis’s sister chain Waitrose said sales of ice-creams had jumped 25% in the same week with barbecue and picnic foods also in unusually high demand.

The unpredictable British weather is one of the biggest challenges faced by the country’s fashion chains but the stakes are highest at this time of year as heavy-duty winter clothing brings higher profit margins. “A warm September never helps, but I’m not in the weather business I’m in the fashion business,” said Stephen Marks, chief executive and founder of French Connection. “We featured a blue coat in our advertising and it absolutely flew out of the stores when the weather was hot. You’ve got to have the right things.”

Espirito Santo analyst Tony Shiret said that store chiefs were probably ahead of their sales targets at the start of this month as the disappointing August weather initially boosted sales of their new collections. “They were probably a little bit ahead coming into September and now will be net down,” he said. “August is a much smaller [sales] month because it doesn’t have the marketing behind it.”

Sophie Bevan, head of retail at BDO, said retailers were in relatively good shape because summer collections had sold well. “This time last year there were more promotions of summer end-of-stock lines and more appropriate weather for the products in store.”

The poor fashion sales blunted John Lewis’s overall performance with sales down 3.5% in the week to last Saturday. There were bright spots, with the retailer reporting a 4% increase in sales of men’s accessories – buoyed by demand for Calvin Klein underwear – and a 3.6% uplift in its electricals departments, where tablets and Apple products were in demand.

Home furnishings also did well, with sales of carpets and curtains up 11%. “Although customers are not planning for the cold winter nights just yet, they are still looking to treat themselves to a little something new,” said Marsh.

Retailers will only be in real trouble if a warm September turns into an Indian summer, which the Met Office defines as “a warm, calm spell of weather occurring in autumn, especially in October and November”.

“Retail is a flow business,” Shiret added. “They’ve got product coming in in the next few weeks because of the planned phasing of new stock and it starts backing up unless you clear it. I think everyone will be hoping this weather stops soon.”