Traditionally it is the days and weeks after Christmas that are the most terrifying for retailers. The final quarter of the year arrives when rents have to be paid (this year, it is actually on 25 December), the invoices from suppliers pile up, a visit from the VAT man is imminent and the banks start to get antsy about the swelling overdrafts and feeble cash flow. Within days, the corporate undertakers come knocking.
This year the pattern has been different. Amid the carnage of the credit crunch, no one is taking any chances. Even if you are a company such as Woolworths – which takes in 80 per cent of its income in the six weeks leading up to Christmas – impatience sets in. The first thing to go is the credit insurance, the guarantee to suppliers that they will be paid, come hell or high water. When that happens, the sweet factory demands cash for each shipment of pick’n’mix and banks start becoming nervous. Before the directors have a chance to take emergency action, such as selling off a string of stores to rivals, the plug has been pulled.
The demise of Woolworths, a fixture on Britain’s high streets for a century, is not that surprising. Its elder sister in the United States died some years ago and its falling share price has been signalling disaster for some time. But Woolworths is far from being alone. Among the reasons that Alistair Darling chose to make a 2.5 per cent cut in VAT the centrepiece of his pre-Budget report is that it has two important characteristics. Unlike an income or corporation tax, it can be administered swiftly – without the need for a complex finance bill. Second, it does help the consumer and the high street.
The sceptics have argued that a few pence or pounds off prices as a result of lowering VAT makes no difference in a year when Marks & Spencer is conducting guerrilla sales tactics (“20 per cent off” days, designed to catch the opposition on the hop) and other high-street chains are permanently holding sales.
Such observations are economically illiterate: by hook or by crook the cut in VAT will put £12bn into the economy over a relatively short period. Even if the price cut is not passed on, it will mean that smaller high-street boutiques may be able to hang on a little longer (by widening profit margins) allowing them to main tain a job or two that might have been shed in recession conditions.
What is different about the present crisis on the high street, which has seen the demise of Woolworths, MFI, MK One, as well as a slump in the shares of DSG (owner of Currys, PC World and the online Dixons site), is that it reflects changes in retailing and the way we shop.
It is no coincidence that the Woolworths on my local high street in south-west London had already closed by the time the administrators moved in and the premises were being refitted as a Tesco Extra.
The boundaries between shopping chains have changed. When Tesco reached saturation point in food sales, at the point where it became subject to regular competition and monopoly investigations, it headed in the direction of diversification. No longer is it just a grocer. It is a newsagent (watch out W H Smith), a clothing retailer (be careful Debenhams), an electronics outfit (no wonder Currys is hurting) and has moved into the video entertainment business (poor old Woolies). Tesco, the dominant force in British shopping, is not alone in this. There is no longer such a thing as a specialist retailer.
The big grocers – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and, to a lesser extent, Morrisons – realised some time ago that while people came to their stores for their daily bread, the profit margins on food are relatively narrow. But if they could bulk-buy products – from fashionable clothes to flat-screen televisions made in China and the Far East – they could become vast department stores. Indeed, the profit margins on the clothes and electrical goods could be better than those on the 50,000 food items.
Even the venerable Marks & Spencer, still the nation’s biggest clothing retailer with around 12 per cent of the market, is in the television and kettles business. Consumers who trust M&S with their lingerie needs are not going to doubt that an M&S kettle is as good as one bought from Currys. The need for the general store, of which Woolworths was the exemplar with its eclectic mix of everything from screwdrivers to chocolate bars, is no longer there.
Also undermining the high street is, of course, the internet. Personally, as much as I love browsing in bookshops, new and secondhand, it is a long time since I made a purchase from one. My book shopping is done online through Amazon or the fantastic used-book site AbeBooks. Online sales are rising exponentially, climbing by 54 per cent to £46.6bn in 2007. This is money that is being cannibalised from the high street. Does all of this mean that the high street as we know it is over? One doubts it. But the line-up of stores will change. Tescopoly has its natural limits. In much the same way as Woolworths has been replaced by its modern equivalent, Wilkinsons (which is seeking to buy Woolworths’ premises), in some suburban centres, so Currys is going to find itself under pressure from the American import Best Buy, where the emphasis is on expertise and service.
Once it was out-of-town shopping that was the threat. But soon the developers realised that people actually like the social aspect of open-air, high-street shopping and have redeveloped the high street from Bristol to Leeds with open spaces and cafes. The high street is organic and over the coming year or so, as the slump bites, empty stores will proliferate. But don’t despair – there will always be an entrepreneur ready to bet on recovery and find ever new ways to claim the shopping pound.
Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail
Woolworths – the chain has collapsed with debts of £385m and many of its 815 branches (and 30,000 jobs) are expected to go.
Argos – after reporting its biggest ever fall in sales in October, staff had their hours cut by 20 per cent.
John Lewis – reported a 13 per cent drop in sales, its tenth successive decline.
Debenhams – is carrying nearly £1bn in debts, and profits have dropped by 16 per cent.
MFI – the company went into administration last week; 1,000 jobs will be lost.
Character Group – shares in the firm, which supplies Britain’s biggest toy retailers, including Tesco and Toys R Us, dropped 20 per cent last week. The company is now valued at little more than the value of its bank deposits.
JJB Sports – selling off assets to repay £20m loan; JD Sports is considering buying its rival.
Land of Leather – the furniture retailer reports sales down 47 per cent on last year.
Majestic Wine – its half-year profits are down 25 per cent.
Wrapit – the wedding gift-list firm went under in August, taking up to 2,000 couples’ presents with it.
Rosebys – the textiles chain closed for good last month – 201 shops have shut.
Hardy Amies – the Savile Row tailor and one-time dressmaker to the Queen went into administration in October, forcing the closure of five of its six UK stores.
. . . and even Tesco has posted its worst performance since 1992, with just 1.9 per cent growth. Shares fell 40 per cent in the past year.