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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle