Self-help is the order of the day among retailers. The phrase has consistently peppered store chiefs’ City updates and analysts have compiled buy lists based on retailers’ capacity for self-help.

Self-help is the order of the day among retailers. The phrase has consistently peppered store chiefs’ City updates and analysts have compiled buy lists based on retailers’ capacity for self-help.

Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire has frequently referred to the self-help measures adopted by the DIY group. In the past week, Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose and Debenhams supremo Rob Templeman both drew attention to the self-help programmes under way at their respective businesses.

Self-help action and opportunities are a useful yardstick to gauge retail stocks. On the high street, there is always uncertainty about prospects and retail leaders always err on the side of caution when asked to gaze into their crystal balls.

During recession, and now as a general election looms, there can be wild swings in sentiment as investors alternately desert the sector then buy back in as things turn out better than expected.

And expectations have consistently been confounded over the past 18 months. After the dark days of Woolworths’ collapse there was such a mood of panic that you’d have thought M&S or Tesco was likely to be following in the variety store group’s footsteps.

But after sentiment and share prices rose, the sector was again de-rated - only to be on the rise once more as retailer after retailer beat expectations in one way or another.

That is testament both to the capacity of retailers to help themselves and the usefulness of self-help potential in picking stocks. So much of retail boils down to excellence of execution and many store chiefs have shown themselves to be past masters in improving operations and seizing opportunity in difficult times.

The hard part of course is to separate the sheep from the goats when self-help is an aspiration, rather than a proven ability. But the augurs so far from some of the sector’s biggest names are good and indicate value still to come for investors.