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
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.