John Lewis, the UK's biggest department store group, showed its partial resilience to tough macro headwinds with a 4.4 percent rise in sales last week as its customers started their preparations for Christmas.

The employee-owned business said on Friday sales at its department stores were 72 million pounds in the week to November 5, up from 69 million pounds last year.

Sales excluding VAT sales tax increased 2.6 percent.

The firm, which launches its Christmas TV advertising campaign on Saturday, said it saw double-digit sales increases from its Christmas shop and gift food, while Christmas trees had a particularly good week, with uplifts of more than 50 percent on last year.

Given that John Lewis is often seen as a bellwether for the health of consumer spending, retailers will be hoping that this is a sign that consumers will be prepared to up their spending for Christmas, said IHS Global Insight chief economist Howard Archer.

However, with consumers under major pressure and confidence very low, the suspicion is that they will be careful in their Christmas spending.

Cash-strapped British consumers are feeling the pinch as disposable incomes are squeezed by rising prices, muted wage growth and government austerity measures, and as they worry about a stagnant housing market, job security and a fragile economic recovery.

Industry group the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said on Tuesday a 0.6 percent year-on-year fall in October sales from stores open more than a year augured badly for the key Christmas trading period.

John Lewis also owns the Waitrose supermarket chain.

Here, week to November 5 sales increased 8.2 percent to 107.7 million pounds, underscoring the business as one of the fastest growing in the UK grocery sector.

(Reporting by James Davey; editing by Matt Scuffham)