Stores buy into an optimistic vision despite drop in footfall

RETAILERS in the Capital say they have enjoyed an "encouraging" start to the year, despite figures showing a slump in the number of city centre shoppers.

And they expect a strong Easter weekend as shoppers hunt out fashion for the summer.

John Lewis – one of Edinburgh's biggest stores – reported that sales at its St James Centre branch have increased by 5.6 per cent so far this year.

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Harvey Nichols also said that sales were ahead of last year in its St Andrew Square store.

Some of the Lothians' biggest shopping centres have reported "robust" trade in the first three months of the year – traditionally a quiet time of the year.

The figures come despite official data from the city council showing that the number of pedestrians at Edinburgh's busiest location – outside Marks & Spencer on Princes Street – was down 11.9 per cent in February compared to February 2009.

Gordon Drummond, general manager at Harvey Nichols, said: "We have been stronger than last year but the figures from January to March last year were fairly soft. Last year we saw people buying right up to Christmas and that meant that January until Easter was lacklustre, so this year's figures are flattered by that.

"From Easter, we see the market grow. It seems to signal the start of the summer and, with the weather tending to improve, people begin to lift their heads."

He said that Good Friday was a "very busy" day both on the shop floor and in the restaurant.

And the increase in sales at John Lewis indicates strong trade in the city centre despite the decline in footfall shown in council data.

Outside the city centre, Liam Smith, centre manager at Fort Kinnaird, said: "Generally, it has been reasonably robust this year. There have been a few odd weeks of very slow footfall but that would be expected given some of the bad weather we have had."

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Bosses at Cameron Toll Shopping Centre hope that the opening of a new large Peacocks store and a new branch of Costa will boost numbers in the coming months.

Jim Riddell, centre manager, said: "Overall it has been an extremely encouraging start to 2010, with footfall comparable to last year.

"The extreme weather in the early part of the year did have an impact on customer buying habits with retailers reporting strong sales in warm clothing, bedding and Wellington boots."

The Centre in Livingston said 2.7 million people had visited since the turn of the year – up on the first three months of the year for the same time last year.

Operations manager Anne McGroarty said: "The challenging weather in the first part of 2010 does not seem to have hindered the public's appetite to shop."