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City Republic: Retailers defy gloomsters as British shoppers rally to the cause

LONDON - Next CEO Simon Wolfson should be expecting a bottle or two of Marks & Spencer's finest today from Sir Stuart Rose as yesterday's figures from Next set the scene perfectly for M&S's announcement of falling sales and a few store closures today.

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Next sales for the last six months of 2008 fell by 7%, much better than the market expected in the present climate of doom and gloom on the High Street, and the shares rose strongly.

M&S announced that its like-for-like sales in the 13 weeks to December 27 had fallen by an almost identical 7.1%, less than the market had been expecting up to yesterday.

There the similarity ends as Wolfson also said that he expected 2008 profits to come in at around £415m, at the bottom range of Next's target range but within it nonetheless.

Last time out M&S made over £1bn and some analysts were expecting that to halve as the firm takes its now traditional powder on premium lines, particularly food, in a downturn.

M&S is to sell 25 Simply Food stores and two big stores plus lose 1230 jobs, a chunky 450 from head office in Paddington.

It's also going to cap contributions into its pension fund at 1%.

But for a company of M&S's size this is tinkering at the margins and suggests that the company's profits are better than expected.

Debenhams also surprised the markets yesterday with "only" a 3.3% sales drop while its shares rose nearly 30 per cent to 37p.

Later this week Sainsbury's kicks off the Christmas updates for the big grocers, to be followed by Tesco next week.

Sainsbury's is thriving under CEO Justin King whereas Tesco's growth has slowed, being squeezed at the top end by Sainsbury's and Waitrose and the bottom by Asda, Morrisons and the German discounters.

But the general picture from the retail sector seems to be that the quality operators, particularly those that own a proportion of their freeholds, are coming through the recession in reasonably good shape.

Once again the heroic British shopper has come to the rescue, which will be a huge relief for PM Gordon Brown and chancellor Alistair Darling, under fire from the Tories for "wasting" £12bn on the 2.5% cut in VAT.

Shoppers may have kept an iron grip on their credit cards in October and November as they were spooked by gloomy forecasts, job losses and even the Bank of England's huge cut in bank rate.

But anyone who went out to buy a suit or a sofa then, when everyone knew the sales were coming with a vengeance, merited certifying.

In the High Street at least a degree of deflation (continuously falling prices) seems to be doing the trick.

Miners don't know which way to turn

US aluminium giant Alcoa is cutting 13,500 jobs, 13% of its workforce, and slashing capital expenditure by half to $1.8bn as it forecasts tough times in the raw materials market.

At the same time shares rose strongly in the southern hemisphere this morning as raw material prices continued their January rally.

Miners were the main support for stock markets for most of last year as materials prices soared on the voracious appetite of Bric economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), particularly the Chinese as they built thousands of factories and the Olympic Games.

They came sharply off the boil, Post-Olympics, as China cut back its raw materials imports.

The Far East markets are now saying that the downturn in China won't be as bad as many feared and the same message is being sent by the oil price, now pushing through $50 a barrel when it had fallen as low as $30 recently.

Fears that events in Gaza might turn into a wider Middle East conflict may account for some of the rise in oil, but nobody really expects this to happen.

The recovery story is still disputed by many and potential share buyers will be looking for some hard evidence from company earnings in the next few weeks to keep the rally going.

The truth seems to be that the recession was upon us before the authorities, particularly governments and central banks, realized, although many companies and most consumers were certainly aware of it.

Now the question is, with two quarters of recession already gone, are we going to see a four-quarter recession in total (the norm over the past two decades) or something worse?

Alcoa has placed its big bet. The markets are, tentatively, suggesting otherwise.

Low key Apples signals a big change

There was no Steve Jobs at this year's MacWorld tradeshow (Jobs is suffering from a "hormone imbalance" although he's staying on as CEO of Apple).

Apple won't be there at all next year, if the company's recent pronouncement is to be believed.

But the computer giant still took the opportunity to announce that it had secured agreement from the big music companies to launch a three-tier pricing system on its iTunes digital music store (now the biggest supplier of music in the world).

It will now offer older tracks at 69 cents, others at the current standard of 99 cents and a few (one hopes) for $1.29.

With the demise in the UK of Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastore) and Woolworths, HMV will be just about the only place on the High Street to buy music if you're not a downloader.

Which is one of the biggest commercial revolutions that Mr Jobs has authored.

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