A successful retail Christmas is all about planning, but even the best laid plans can’t take account of the extreme cold snap that has paralysed large parts of the country over the past fortnight.

A successful retail Christmas is all about planning, but even the best laid plans can’t take account of the extreme cold snap that has paralysed large parts of the country over the past fortnight.

Snow and ice are hazards of retailing in the UK, but it’s unusual for such a severe and prolonged bout to take hold ahead of Christmas. And with the roads and railways grinding to a halt in much of the country, it was inevitable that sales were going to plummet.

The question is whether the lost sales can be made up. Stores’ losses have clearly been online’s gain, despite the delivery challenges, and the very nature of Christmas means it’s the one time of year when many products that are discretionary for the rest of the year become non-discretionary. Everyone expects presents after all.

The calendar also helps. With Christmas falling on a Saturday there are still two full weeks of shopping to go and with the severe weather set to ease from the weekend (page 8) - although there are fears it could return - there’s time to make it up. Last year’s pre-Christmas snow came much closer to the big day yet the outcome was still fine, and Christmas 2010 shouldn’t be much different.

What the problems of the past fortnight do, however, is up the stakes for retailers, and with December’s sales bound to be tracking well below where they should be, the likely outcome is some desperate last minute promotions. Good news for shoppers but it’s going to be a brutally competitive final fortnight when retailers are going to have to work hard to protect profitability as well as claw back sales.

Lifting the mood

It shows how much the food retail world has toughened that a 0.7% UK like-for-like rise at Tesco is celebrated. But the Kantar market share figures this week showed that the UK’s biggest grocer is in decent shape for the final Christmas of the Leahy era, although Sainsbury’s is clearly the stand-out performer and on a terrific run.

What’s interesting is that both retailers are benefiting from shoppers trading up and treating themselves to premium lines, which always happens at Christmas but has been a growing trend throughout autumn. Another sign perhaps that the supposedly dire consumer mood isn’t as bad as some say, and that the worst fears for 2011 won’t be realised.