Next chief executive Simon Wolfson put the cat among the retail share price pigeons last week with a frank summary of current trading conditions and the shape of things to come.
His comments resulted in the stocks of a raft of leading retailers plunging as the sector was de-rated on what Arden analyst Nick Bubb dubbed “black Wednesday”. Marks & Spencer, Home Retail and Kingfisher’s shares all accompanied those of Next on a journey south.
The question is how bad the rest of the year is likely to be for retail trading and therefore retail share prices.
In fact, there were few surprises in Wolfson’s comments. Concerns such as price rises, the impact of higher VAT and the consumer mindset have been preoccupying retailers and analysts for months.
Wolfson’s detailed comments, however, put flesh on the bones of the skeletons that had been peering from behind the door of retail’s closet.
The surprise was the extent of the share price reaction immediately afterwards. Many analysts thought that likely tougher high street conditions had already been factored in to the sector’s shares. That proved not to be the case.
Some in the City believe that Wolfson has a tendency to err on the bearish side when he updates and point out that he often over-delivers on expectations. Even after last week’s caution Wolfson remained confident that full-year profits would meet expectations and are expected to rise between 6% and 11%.
Wolfson was adamant last week that he was not talking about sales falling off a cliff. The word he used to describe conditions was “sluggish”.
Retail shares now look likely to tread water for a while. There will be short-term volatility as store groups update, but until the big picture becomes clearer in the run-up to Christmas and the new year the sector’s shares look condemned to put in a pretty flat performance.