Owners of Brighton's small and trendy shops are rating 2004 a turkey of a Christmas.

They fear it won't be a prosperous new year, either, as many struggle to keep up with demands for ever-higher rent.

Traders in The Lanes and North Laine say their colourful and idiosyncratic stores give the area its unique feel but their relatively small businesses do not allow for bulk orders or big profit margins.

It can cost up to £25,000 a year to rent a shop in Gardner Street.

Peter Stocker, of the North Laine Traders Association, said increases in rent and rates, combined with worryingly slow Christmas trade, had caused a lot of stress among traders.

He said: "We have been doing the shopping bag test - when people are carrying a lot of bags, trade is good.

"So far this Christmas there are still not many people carrying many bags and there are a lot of very stressed people in the North Laine.

"When the rent is this high in shops this small you have to be selling small, high value items such as jewellery."

He said trade at his Workshop Pottery was poor over Christmas last year and it was down a further 10-20 per cent this year .

Many landlords were based in London and did not realise the impact their rent demands were having on the area. He said: "It is important people talk to other shops in the same road to make sure they are not paying more than anyone else.

"It is the only way to keep rents as cheap as possible."

Alan Davies, of Steeles sewing machine shop, said North Laine was a victim of its own success.

He said: "People rented shops here 20 years ago because they couldn't afford to rent in other parts of town.

"Because they made such a success of it, the rents are now some of the most expensive in Brighton.

"It is certainly the slowest Christmas I can remember. People just don't seem to be spending the money."