Making sense of the past seven days
Christmas may be coming, but it remains to be seen - so far as retailers are concerned - whether the goose is getting fat or is well and truly cooked. The October sales figures from the BRC were seen in some quarters as evidence that there may be a glimpse of light at the end of the trading tunnel. Although it was the eighth month this year that like-for-likes were down, the slide of 0.7 per cent on a three-month basis did represent an improvement on the 1.4 per cent recorded in September.

There was also good news from Marks & Spencer, which posted a near-20 per cent rise in interim profits, and Debenhams, where boss Rob Templeman boosted annual profits by a stonking 123 per cent to almost£239 million. But M&S chief executive Stuart Rose warned, with some understatement, that trading conditions remain 'very difficult'. His reminder that last Christmas 'was very promotionally driven' sounded like a veiled warning that competition this festive season could be extremely cut-throat.

While venture capital-backed Debenhams acknowledged a 'challenging' trading environment, there was also 'confidence that we will continue to deliver strong growth in the future'.

In a little over seven weeks, all will become clear, as the decorations come down and the numbers are totted up. Coinciding with the panto season, the January trading statements are likely to provoke just as many boos, hisses and cheers as retail's heroes and zeroes come under the City spotlight.

Of course, the main focus will be on the publicly quoted retailers. But a corporate finance source told me the other day that what he is really interested in is news that may emerge about the private equity-owned store groups. After all the high profile deals, what are the chances that one might come a cropper, he wondered. If so, what would the effect be on potential deals and the IPO prospects of others? Now that so many retailers are in private hands, information on their fortunes is key to painting the real retail picture. It will be fascinating to find out in January to what extent they disclose seasonal performance.

Our report this week about a potentially devastating blow to shoe retailers, who face the possibility of a tax hit that could add as much as£15 to the price of footwear, revealed the growing influence of the EU on the retail sector. Only a few months on from the notorious bra wars prompted by quotas on Chinese textiles, retailers once again face problems over Far-Eastern sourcing at a European level.

At home, Tesco, one of the few remaining stars of the sector, once again faces being cast as villain as the competition authorities ponder whether to launch a new investigation into the grocery market.

In both the domestic market and abroad, retailers must cope with increasingly onerous regulatory scrutiny and rules that hinder rather than help them succeed. It's more important than ever that the sector makes its voice heard in the corridors of power. So the delegation of retailers that rushed to Brussels on Wednesday to promote their case in the shoe dispute should be congratulated. The earlier retailers intervene when political and legal wrangles loom, the more likely they are to successfully influence the outcome.