News that the chief executive and chairman of quoted shopfitter Styles & Wood (S&W) have exited stage left is an indication of the way things are heading in retail at the moment and the way in which this is cascading down the store design supply chain.

For years, S&W has had its detractors, but it has always been hard to argue with the onward progress of its order book and how this translated into robust year-on-year increases.

Now things have changed. Within the past two months there has been a profit warning, there’s a new chief executive and the shares have crashed from around the£2.20 mark this time last year to 20p on Friday.

It’s tempting to speculate that somebody will come along and snap the company up at this price, but its asset is its order book and this is under pressure, so this may prove a forlorn hope.

Not a pretty picture, therefore, and one that, sadly, is being repeated across a number of the larger operators in the sector.

There are, however, exceptions. Take Havelock Europa or Uno Shopfitting. These are very different companies serving very different retailers. But they are both in good health and defying the hard times that seem to be hitting many of their competitors.

Havelock looks after House of Fraser, among others and is one of the few shopfitters that really does appear to have a green policy. If has also been prepared to change with the times, switching some of its production overseas to China for longer lead-time, commodity requirements and making design a major element of what it does.

Stoke-based Uno serves the opposite end of the market with the bulk of its business coming from c-stores. It is thriving – based, its owner claims, on the need for c-store proprietors to upgrade their stores in the face of the onward march of the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s et al.

There can be little doubting that this is not a very good time to be in retailing or involved with those practicing it but, while there are probably rather more losers than winners at the moment, there is always an underlying reason why winners continue to prosper.

The difficult bit is identifying this and then doing likewise. By the time this happens, the canny will already have moved on. The rules of the game remain the same, whether the economic outlook is blustery or not. It’s just that playing is harder.

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