The dog days of August are almost over. Store chiefs and analysts are back from Monaco and Mustique (or Margate, for those whose options are under water). And the countdown has begun to the year’s biggest retail blowout: Christmas.

Every year, the Jeremiahs warn that Christmas spirit will be in short supply, if in evidence at all. Most years, the predictions of meltdown prove wide of the mark. But who’d like to call this year’s prospects, amid some of the most punishing trading conditions that retailers can remember?

Will it be a cut-price Christmas, with turkeys from Iceland and stocking fillers from Poundland? Or, after such a miserable year, will consumers be minded to banish the blues by indulging themselves and their families over the holiday? Or perhaps something in between: a last-minute spending frenzy in December preceded by an autumn of penny-pinching?

At the moment, it’s hard to get a reading of how retailers see things playing out because the volume of trading statements has of course dried up over the summer. But, within a fortnight, investors will start to get a flavour of how the sector has been holding up and what’s in store for the rest of the year. The week after next – which, ironically, will bring the anniversary of the run on Northern Rock, one of the triggers of the downturn – will unleash a torrent of data and opinion.

There will be interim results from Next and Morrisons, providing a snapshot of the food and fashion sectors. Home Retail’s trading update will shed light on general merchandise and DIY, and Kesa’s on electricals. And, on top of all the company news, there will be BRC sales data.

So expect a torrent of fact and comment and a sense of where the market is headed and for how long. The one certain thing about Christmas is that it will be on December 25. But it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the festive selling period will be tougher and more fiercely fought than ever.

Right decision by Debs chiefs

Debenhams bosses Rob Templeman and Chris Woodhouse have decided not to take a pay rise in light of tough trading conditions, although store staff will get one.
It’s a good decision. Pay freezes at the coalface while directors coin it in, despite falling sales or profits, are guaranteed to alienate the people whose role is to make sales. In the longer run, it’s also more likely to protect profitability.

George MacDonald is deputy editor of Retail Week