Holter on the loose

The figures look bad, but there are signs of encouragement for retailers

The Christmas sales figures for the off-trade are so grisly that they ought to have an R18 certificate slapped all over them. But look beneath the gloom and there are signs that perhaps things weren't - and aren't - quite as bad as they might at first appear.

Take spirits. A 3 per cent sales decline in the four weeks to Dec 23 is depressing, but volumes in that time were down more than twice that - 7 per cent year on year. In other words, prices were holding a little firmer.

There is a similar picture in cream liqueurs - yes, 9 per cent value decline is not great, but map it against a 21 per cent volume fall and you can see why some voices in the trade remain optimistic.

Gin volumes fell at three times the rate of value, and vodka sales value was static, despite a 3 per cent volume fall. Again, the explanation is that although fewer bottles were shifted, those that were sold went for a slightly better price from a retail point of view.

The overall picture is more complicated than that. Nobody in the sherry business is going to find much good to say about an 8 per cent value decline and a 9 per cent volume collapse. Malt whisky also has some big questions to ask itself: its volumes were actually up 1 per cent with sales value down 1 per cent. Consumers were paying less for more.

As for beer, Christmas was worth forgetting. A value and volume dip of 1 per cent is not the news brewers wanted and with premium lager down 3 per cent using any measure, the sector has some thinking to do in 2007. Without the distraction of a major football tournament, let's hope it arrives at some sensible conclusions.

Whirlwind Alex quits Thresher

Reports have arrived about a whirlwind striking Welwyn Garden City. It's been given the name Alex Anson. It arrived from the south-east (it was originally spotted in Cheshunt) and has since blown over the Channel and is apparently heading for the Alps.

Nobody is going to forget Thresher's outgoing trading director in a hurry. In a very short space of time he helped transform Thresher from a spectral presence in the market, gloomily haunting the high street in search of an identity, perhaps a soul, into a strident and confident business with a genuine sense of purpose. Anson's three-for-two brainwave hasn't solved all of Thresher's long-term problems, but it sure as hell got people talking about the chain again. Of course it's been a team effort, but Anson can look back with pride at his three-year tenure. Thresher now has some meaningful retail formats, a promotional point of difference and a much improved range.

Where does Thresher go in the post-Anson era? Three-for-two has helped drive sales growth but consumers are already as excited about the deal as they're ever likely to be. Thresher still needs more customers. Will three-for-two prove to be a long-term strategy or a straightjacket? An interesting year awaits.