Does no-one do DIY anymore?

B&Q takes a hit.

While Sir Stuart Rose once commented that “weather is for wimps”, Kingfisher has more justification than most to pull this old excuse out of the hat when explaining this quarter’s weak trading results.

Easter is a bit like the DIY sector’s Christmas and is a key time for consumer activity and spending. Unfortunately, this year’s dismal weather dampened consumer demand, both literally and metaphorically. B&Q’s numbers show this with, for example, sales of nursery plants down 16 per cent on last year.

Conlumino’s seasonal consumer tracker, which looks at how people behave and what they buy over the Easter period, shows the same picture in a wider market context. Over the past two Easter periods (2011 & 2012) an average of 22.4 per cent of all consumers undertook some form of gardening activity; this year the figure fell sharply to just 9.4 per cent. The numbers for DIY activity shows a similar trend with 14.6 per cent of consumers undertaking some activity over Easter in 2011 & 2012; this year that number fell to 10.8 per cent, largely thanks to fewer people undertaking outdoor improvement and decoration.  These headline numbers had a very tangible impact on the penetration of consumers purchasing various products over Easter.

Although a weak Easter has had a very tangible downward impact on B&Q, it is only one of a number of negative headwinds impacting the DIY sector. Among these, the main one is a continued lack of traction in the housing market. Although there are now signs that activity is picking up, it will be some time before they return to robust levels of transactions which are critical for a healthy DIY sector.

The other essential issue is the waning consumer interest in DIY. With many projects more discretionary, cash-strapped consumers have been willing to delay improvement and decorative activity; at the same time, a greater reluctance to undertake DIY.

While the weather was a temporal blip – and indeed Kingfisher’s post Easter numbers look far more rosy – these two underlying dynamics are structural and represent the backdrop against which B&Q, and indeed all other players, is operating. While the DIY market will eventually reach a stable and settled level, this probably won’t be until the back end of next year.

As for Kingfisher itself, although it is a victim of circumstance the company is both well run and proactive. Investments in stores, a focus on value and the continued development of ranges and services put it in a strong position to grab share and take advantage of the upturn, when eventually materialises.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

Getty
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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era