One “dazzling” week’s trade in December gave the impression that retailers’ Christmases had all come at once.

One “dazzling” week’s trade in December gave the impression that retailers’ Christmases had all come at once.

But the 2.2%like-for-like uplift across the industry reflected in the BRC data is more akin to the erratic motions of a Mexican jumping bean than the graceful arc of an Olympic jumper on an upwards trajectory.

Retailers’ trading statements so far reveal sharply divergent performance and particularity of experience. While Debenhams and Sainsbury’s did well, Marks & Spencer took a margin hit – though it expects that to be offset by cost savings – and life was far from entertaining for specialists such as Game and HMV.

The three-month BRC data gives a truer picture of how retail is faring and there is little comfort in the figures. While food like-for-likes advanced by just over 2% in October to December, non-food was down by more than 1%. In that context, Sainsbury’s update on Wednesday made interesting reading. While the food business performed strongly, JS flagged the strength of its general merchandise business, which grew at a faster rate.

Compared with Asda and Tesco, Sainsbury’s was a latecomer to non-food so there is greater scope to build revenues in general merchandise categories and less likelihood – as suffered by Tesco over the year – of being hit to the same extent by shoppers’ caution about discretionary spending.

But Sainsbury’s non-food success is a salutary reminder to general merchandise groups that the incursion of the big grocers is not over yet. This year will be tough and non-food retailers will have to devote as much energy as ever not just to navigating the doldrums but finding ways to combat the power of the supermarkets.

Cracking the UK

Good luck to Alshaya, the Middle Eastern retailer that is pushing into the UK after becoming the franchisee for La Senza. As our feature on international launches in this country shows, the UK has frequently proved a cemetery for foreign entrants. Alshaya’s chiefs know a thing or two about British brands – they run stores such as Next and Body Shop overseas – but competing here against established lingerie players including M&S and entrepreneurial start-ups such as Boux Avenue means they must be on their mettle.