Christmas going to the wire has become as big a tradition for retail as the sight of sprouts and mince pies on the grocers’ shelves

Christmas going to the wire has become as big a tradition for retail as the sight of sprouts and mince pies on the grocers’ shelves.

But there is undoubtedly a greater sense of anxiety as we head into the final few days of trading than most commentators had predicted when the festive countdown began in November.

For all the excitement generated by the Black Friday Sales, there’s been little evidence they gave the kind of boost to Christmas retailers had hoped for. Shoppers have not been convinced to alter their preference for leaving shopping until later each year and seeking out the bargains they now expect.

To some extent this reflects the fact Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday this year, which makes it easier for shoppers to leave their purchases until the last minute. The wet weather will have done nothing to help either.

Digital too has had a powerful impact on footfall. Online sales were up 20% year on year in November, according to data from IMRG Capgemini, hitting £10.1bn. Such is the scale of that figure, the industry may yet reflect that Christmas 2013 marked a watershed in the balance between online and offline sales.

But as retail chiefs rally their teams for the final push, the focus will be firmly back on stores. So far much of the data on footfall and sales has made difficult reading, and has led to an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty.

For all the indicators pointing to the start of an economic recovery, stagnant levels of disposable income ensure consumer behaviour remains stubbornly difficult to predict. In that way, this festive season is a microcosm of the whole year. Despite the expectation we are turning a corner, forecasting customer spend now remains as difficult as it did in January.

However, retail’s busiest days of the year remain ahead - Visa expects about £1.2bn to be spent on UK high streets on Monday alone - and, while 2013 has been another tough year for trading, it has also unleashed an unprecedented level of innovation. Whether it is through the evolution of the store or the coming-of-age of multichannel, the sector is better prepared than ever to leverage that last-minute rush.

In the past 12 months structures and strategies, if not financials, have grown up - a significant achievement given the backdrop. It’s been a pleasure at Retail Week to report on and champion those strides forward and we wish you all a merry Christmas and prosperous new year.