HARD times are hurting traders and hampering shoppers, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

The downturn is forcing businesses to come up with ways to attract trade, while there are more deals than ever for bargain hunters.

With rising unemployment, surging petrol prices and VAT increased to 20 per cent, it is little wonder this has impacted on retail spending.

A string of leading chain stores have reported falling profits – with Mothercare’s sales down 2.4 per cent on this time last year, and Laura Ashley’s sales suffering, with shares down 13 per cent and a 4.2 per cent drop in UK sales.

Dixons Retail, the group which owns Currys and PC World, has reported an 11 per cent drop in sales. Meanwhile, stores are having to slash prices and come up with increasingly innovative ideas just to stay afloat.

They are offering a wide variety of discounts and buy-one get-one-free promotions, with 40 per cent of average shopping baskets now on special offer, compared to the historical average of 25 per cent, according to research firm Nielsen.

Ian Clark, general manager of the Eastgate Centre, in Basildon town centre, said: “Traders here are helping themselves, by coming up with all sorts of special offers, which mean it’s a really good time for shoppers to get value for money.”

Trevor Draper, chairman of the Billericay Chamber of Trade, said most shops in Billericay were run by independent traders who inevitably find it harder to offer big discounts than chain stores run by multinational firms.

He said: “Our best approach to dealing with these difficult times is by offering the best possible personal service to customers, which they are less likely to get in the chain stores.

“I would also like to think we have built up sufficient customer loyalty to keep us going.”

Hannah Raven, a director of long-running family-run department store Ravens, in Clifftown Road, Southend, added: “I don’t think we’ve noticed a decline in the number of customers coming in, but they are certainly thinking more about what they are buying.

“We are trying to offer them the best possible service and good value for money.”

Mike Machin, chairman of Canvey Traders’ Association, thinks fashion retailers are having a particularly hard time.

He said: “They’re having to offer big discounts, which are probably wiping out their profit margins, just to keep cash flowing, so they can pay the bills.

“It’s extremely difficult for all shopkeepers at the moment, because people are being very careful with their money.

“It’s not just that people have less money at the present time – if they have any cash, I think they’re probably holding onb to it, because they’re worried things are going to get even worse.”

He said shopkeepers were selling more goods on the internet to maintain profit margins.

Ryan Marshall, 24, and his family have employed a string of new ideas to boost trade at their shop, Selectronic, in Furtherwick Road, Canvey, which sells electronics and photographic equipment.

They’ve launched a new service helping people sell their own goods on eBay, for a 25 per cent commission.

He said: “I’ve always used eBay, but a lot of people don’t even have a computer and have no idea how to do it.

“We help them with everything, from taking the photos to uploading all the relevant information, and it’s proving to be a popular new service.”

The family also had leaflets printed, advertising many of the goods available in the shop, which have been posted to addresses across Canvey.

Mr Marshall said: “That had a big impact, which was obvious because a lot of people who read the leaflets came in and said they didn’t know we existed before.

“We’ve also switched to cheaper suppliers to allow us to cut our prices.”

The family store has been redecorated, with new signs and carpets. New equipment has also been brought in to process canvas prints of photos and other images.

Mr Marshall said: “We used to have to send off for canvas prints, so it took about a week to get them back.

“Now we can do it in-store, and on the day, for a lot cheaper. I don’t think anyone is doing great at the moment, but you have to try to do everything possible to survive.

“I don’t think we’d still be here if we hadn’t made the changes, but we still manage to make a living.”