Traditionally, the back to school trading period for retailers in early September gives a good guide to how the rest of the Autumn will pan out on the High Street.

Traditionally, the back to school trading period for retailers in early September gives a good guide to how the rest of the Autumn will pan out on the High Street.

So what are we to make of Next’s view that things have been disappointingly and unusually quiet?

Next, of course, is famous for eschewing short-term trading trends and focusing on the big long-term picture, so what its highly respected chief executive Simon Wolfson has said today about the outlook being “overcast” should be taken seriously.

Yet we also hear today of bumper current trading at John Lewis department stores, with like-for-like sales up by 8.5% over the last six weeks, despite a quiet time during last week’s heatwave.

And JLP’s equally highly respected chairman, Charlie Mayfield, thinks that consumer demand, though fragile, has stabilised. Are Next and John Lewis living on different planets?

The first point to make is that consumer electronics and technology is the best retail sector to be in at present, given the consumer’s insatiable appetite for tablet computers and smartphones, even though it is relatively big-ticket.

John Lewis is still seeing huge sales increases in this area, driving its overall growth in market share, helped by its powerful multichannel business model.

And even beleaguered Argos has joined the party, reporting some modest like-for-like sales growth over the last quarter thanks to its exposure to this booming market.

Outside  electricals things are more subdued in non-food in general and it is always important to be aware of substitution effects in spending – ie, money spent on a trendy new tablet device is money that can’t be spent on a new suit.

Next report that their clothing sales have worsened more than homewares in recent weeks - with womenswear and kidswear feeling the brunt - and that online sales have slowed more than retail sales.

 Now, the Olympics and the weather are two obvious issues to reflect on when looking at trading over the last six weeks and, remarkably, the weather was actually surprisingly good during the Olympics, when so many of us were engrossed watching it all on TV. 

 And the so-called Indian summer last week was a recipe for consumers to rush to the parks and gardens rather than do their patriotic duty and go shopping, to celebrate the new national mood of post-Olympics confidence.  

 But, underneath it all, and looking through the spread of winners and losers (with John Lewis up there on a pedestal), perhaps there is more of a ‘trend’ than a ‘blip’ about slow recent trading and weak high street footfall.

 After all, consumers know that interest/mortgage rates can’t stay low for ever and that getting credit is difficult, so a bit of prudence this autumn when it comes to spending and saving is not surprising.  

Inflation is creeping up again, not least in the form of higher petrol prices, putting pressure on real disposable incomes and a lot of the so-called jobs being created by the private sector seem to be temporary or part-time.

The John Lewis consumer may be a bit more insulated from such things, but in the mass-market it looks like the run-up to Christmas is going to be more difficult than ever for retailers.