Interesting times for the retail sector

Things are destined to get pretty tough.

The expression “may you live in interesting times” is seen by the Chinese as a curse; interesting is not seen as a positive but, rather, is equated with disorder, problems and trouble. Such a sentiment will probably ring true with retailers next year: as fascinating as the market is from an analytical point of view, there is no denying that things are set to get pretty tough.

This view reflects several a numbers of current and upcoming challenges which are stacked against the retail sector.

Foremost among them will be a complete absence of overall real sales growth. While official headline figures may continue to profess to a market that is growing, albeit anaemically, all of that growth will likely be driven by inflation; by the time this is removed, retail volumes will shrink strongly. In other words, we will all be buying less which means the spoils of consumer spending will be spread more thinly.

In many ways retail sales will be a symptom of the underlying issues, they will reflect the fact that the whole economy will remain in stasis, that consumers will continue to lack the confidence to go out and spend, and that unemployment and poor wage growth will have left many household budgets more squeezed than they have been in decades.

In addition to the above, more specific factors like fuel prices - which have come down from their record high but are likely to remain elevated – will unhelpfully change the way we shop: reducing visit frequency and deterring some from driving long distances to out-of-town centres. Equally, it is difficult to foresee an uptick in the housing market which will likely continue to remain depressed, dampening demand for DIY, furnishings and floorcoverings.  As transient as these things may yet prove to be, they will remain decidedly unhelpful to a struggling retail sector in 2012.

As demand slows, the room retailers have for manoeuvre becomes narrower. For example, many would like to increase prices to make up for hikes in the cost of doing business, but most simply won’t for fear of losing custom and share in a market that will remain increasingly price sensitive.  As a result, quite a number of players will continue to report squeezed margins and profits.

While all of this makes for gloomy reading, the truth is that these austere circumstances will reshape the retail sector and the process of reconfiguration is a painful one. The current shape of the sector – the number of shops, the amount of space, the way retailers do business – is one that was created to reflect the demands and needs of the last ten years. Things have now changed and a more muted demand environment means a new shape is required. Some of the things retailers need to be thinking about, include:

  • Rebalancing and optimising their store portfolios for the multichannel world; thinking about how many stores are really needed to reach customer and what those stores are there to do (inspire, act as a point of transaction or collection, etc.) is critical.
  • Adding value to the retail offer to ensure that customers are given compelling reasons to buy; lacklustre offers will increasingly be forced to compete on price, which is a poor differentiator and will serve only to erode margins.
  • Keeping close to customers in order to engage them and win their loyalty; with many shoppers buying less frequently, it is important for retailers to keep themselves foremost of mind.
  • Marketing through emotion and excitement; it is increasingly important for retailers to connect with consumers on an emotional and not just a functional level – consumers need to be cajoled and convinced into buying things, and emotion sells.
  • Personalising the offer and the experience; this means that retailers really need to understand consumers’ needs and desires and then translate this into all aspects of their proposition, especially within the online selling environment.

So in many ways 2012 will be a year of evolution. And just like evolution, the process of change will create casualties – some retailers have already died out, others will follow – but, longer term, it creates winners too. Those that adapt will survive and could even come out of the process stronger as a result. Some retailers have already started on this journey which is why, among the gloomy trading updates, there are occasionally chinks of light.

What do these players do to stand out? Quite simply they think, they innovate and they respond. In other words, they have interesting responses to our interesting times.

Neil Saunders is Retail Director for Canadean and Managing Director of Conlumino.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.