Despite recent gains in retail prices, the sector's outlook is grim, according to Mark Kwok Chi-yat, managing director of Wing On International Holdings. Mr Kwok, also on the executive committee of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association, said the industry was not anticipating any spectacular turnaround in fortunes this year. 'There is still a long hard climb, possibly throughout next year,' he said. Retail sales improved for a fourth consecutive month in April, with the volume of goods sold rising 13.7 per cent against the same month last year. However, sales are still 15 per cent to 20 per cent below their June 1997 highs. Mr Kwok said Wing On Plus, the company's new HK$40 million department store in Nathan Road, Kowloon, was targeting the cash-rich younger consumer. He said the store's traditionally mature consumer had been hit hard by the recession and had less disposable income. 'When the economy is on the long climb up, it is a good time to be jockeying for position ready for the take-off,' he said. Wing On Co International, the group's Hong Kong-listed retailing arm which operates department stores in the mainland, Australia and the United States, recorded a year-on-year 21.42 per cent fall in attributable profit to HK$44 million to December 31. Turnover fell to HK$1.74 billion from HK$1.93 billion the previous year. Mr Kwok said Wing On was facing the added challenge of competing with retailers in Shenzhen who offered apparel and footwear, the store's two mainstays, at considerable discounts. Mr Kwok warned consumers they risked losing money from faulty and poor quality goods if they shopped in the mainland. 'I'd remind them that for the money they spend [in Shenzhen], they are better off spending their time in Hong Kong,' he said.