A host of the biggest names on the British high street were under pressure today as concerns over trading in the crucial Christmas season mounted.
With a week of shopping to go until the big day, City experts are fearful over prospects for many major players in the sector, with hard-hit consumers facing soaring mortgage bills as well as higher petrol and food costs.
Argos owner Home Retail Group was FTSE 100 Index's leading faller - down 6% today. It was followed by other well-known names such as fashion chain Next and Currys owner DSG International.
Other major players on the back foot included Marks & Spencer, while department store chain Debenhams was the worst performer in the FTSE 250.
The gloom was sparked by weekend reports of heavy discounting to tempt in shoppers and downbeat comments from City analysts over prospects for fashion retailers, sellers of "big ticket" items, and chains such as Argos which sell gifts broadly available elsewhere on the high street as well as online.
Seymour Pierce's Andrew Wade says general retailers have underperformed in the wider FTSE 100 Index by 25% in the past year as pressure on the consumer grows and retailers face increasing competition online.
He adds: "Anecdotal evidence from the high street suggests to us that current trading is soft."
Nervous consumers coming to the end of fixed-rate mortgages and facing repayment hikes are also cutting back on spending on larger items such as sofas, leading to warnings from the likes of ScS Upholstery.
And slowing housing prices after the Bank of England's five rate hikes in the year to July have dented consumer confidence, Mr Wade adds.
Today, Doctor Who toys group Character added its name to the increasing list of firms to warn of falling sales in what it called "unusually difficult" trading conditions.
It said: "As a major UK supplier, the group is not immune to the effects of faltering consumer confidence and this view seems to be supported by the heavy discounting occurring on the high street."
In the past month other fashion names such as French Connection, Alexon and menswear specialist Moss Bros have warned on profits, as well as sportswear firms such as Sports World owner Sports Direct International and England kit maker Umbro. This pair were hit after the national football team's failure to qualify for the European Championships.
Other firms under profits pressure included H Samuel and Ernest Jones jeweller Signet, while DSG and B&Q owner Kingfisher have meanwhile been cautious over Christmas trading prospects.
In the restaurant sector, Tootsies parent company Clapham House caused alarm earlier this month after revealing that dampened consumer spending and higher costs would knock its performance.
The group spread fears of a consumer slowdown as it said trade was poor in its key shopping centre eateries, with fewer shoppers visiting stores.
The pressure on retailers is unlikely to let up next year. Despite a few bright spots in the online sector such as fast-growing ASOS, which sells clothing lines based on celebrity outfits, Mr Wade is downbeat over "patchy" retail prospects.
He adds: "Looking into 2008, we expect a difficult start for the high street as the full effects of interest rate rises continue to feed through to mortgage repayments and non-food spend continues to shift online and to the supermarkets.
"We expect things to get worse before they get better."