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 Images.
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.