Tuesday was the anniversary of Lehman’s collapse, which a year ago sent retail sales plunging within hours of its demise.
12 months on, the tremors have begun to fade but the retail landscape has been transformed. Despite the financial earthquake, many retailers found that the City was not closed for business. Debenhams and DSGi were able to raise cash in the Square Mile and, as the year went on, others successfully refinanced. Robert Dyas was the most recent, last week concluding a debt for equity swap with its lenders. Retail valuations surged over the course of this year as investors’ worst fears for the sector failed to materialise.
But Lehman’s fall hastened the end for some troubled store groups as consumers stashed their cash rather than spending it. And it is shoppers’ willingness to loosen their purse strings that remains key for retailers: have consumers laid the ghost of Lehman’s to rest?
In the coming months, retailers expect to report improving sales – unsurprising, given how soft the comps are. But better numbers may mask the consumer mood. There has been a lot of talk about the new frugality. It’s perhaps overdone, but it’s real all the same.
While you’d expect Wal-Mart boss Mike Duke to hail changes in demand patterns as the “new normal”, the focus on value at John Lewis – which is launching low-price ranges and has reissued a wartime pamphlet on how to make do and mend – shows that the trend is here to stay.
It was evident in the most recent personal borrowing figures. In July, consumer debt fell for the first time since records began in 1993. Consumers cut borrowing by £600m as money went on mortgages and credit card payments. It might be true that disposable income is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean consumers are minded to dispose of it. Wal-Mart’s marketing tag, “Save money, live better”, probably sums up the post-Lehman mindset.
Many retailers have weathered the seismic shift better than they feared, but the aftershocks will still be felt.
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