Shopper fears drive sales figures down

Restoration of the Central Line tube link to London's West End provided the only glimmer of hope for retailers this week, as depressing new figures revealed the worst sales slump in more than a decade.

The CBI retail survey found a balance of 13 per cent of retailers reported like-for-like sales down during the fortnight to March 19 compared with last year.

The 13 per cent negative balance is the most pessimistic since July 1992, shortly before the UK exited the ERM in the depths of the early 1990s recession and compares with a 2 per cent figure in February this year.

Shopper traffic monitor SPSL also said numbers were down, with first quarter retail traffic falling 2.8 per cent on the same period last year.

Cautious consumer spending is attributed to the war in Iraq, higher National Insurance contributions and the uncertain housing market - although the CBI data was gathered pre-war.

Data on tax-free shopping continues to indicate an absence of high-spending overseas visitors since war began. Global Refund said UK tax-free sales halved last week, hitting tourist-sensitive retailers such as Harrods.

Owners of flagship West End stores have lamented the Central Line's suspension. Tube bosses will reopen key stations this week.