THE END of the summer feels too early to be thinking about Christmas, but retailers have little choice. The typical British household spends around a third more than usual in December, and stocking up for the most important trading weeks of the year usually begins around now. This year, however, rather than preparing for the coming rush, retailers are struggling to keep shelves full.

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According to survey data from the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group, retailers’ and manufacturers’ inventories have plunged in recent months (see chart). It has been asking members about stock levels for decades and has never recorded answers so low. In spring and early summer, shortages of construction materials and computer chips hampered builders and carmakers. In recent weeks the impact has become more…

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