January is the month when not much happens in retail traditionally.
January is the month when not much happens in retail traditionally. There are few customers and almost no new stores open. Indeed, pretty much all that takes place is the scramble by retail analysts and journalists to pick over the debris of Christmas and the Sales and an attempt at reading the runes for the year ahead - usually unsuccessfully.
Yet as Harold McMillan might have put it if he’d ever deigned to speak about the sector, what makes it interesting is “Events, dear boy, events”. And actually, there has been no shortage of them, whether it’s HMV, Jessops or the opening on Friday of a good-looking Urban Outfitters at the west end of Oxford Street.
The theory goes however that from February onwards things should begin to heat up - this is the moment when new initiatives are unveiled, refurbished stores and new formats make an appearance and retail engines start to purr. Well, here’s a thing. The engine has never been in neutral this year as retailers look at new ways of doing things - the digital lab at M&S or the social media-enabled New Look at Marble Arch stand as examples of just this. And it’s less a case of last man standing trying desperately to persuade shoppers that now is the time to get out their wallets (although there may be an element of this with some retailers) and rather more a realisation that the world has already changed and that retail needs to keep pace.
This has meant that January, rather than being a period of relative stasis, has turned into a fairly dynamic month, even if shoppers may not have been aware of it. There will certainly be a few wild cards during the first half that nobody will have seen coming, but much of what we are currently seeing is the result of actions taken over the last 12 months.
As we glide into February therefore, the year has in fact started with more of a bang than a whimper and it seems probable that things are set to heat up further still. We may indeed be in the doldrums as far as shoppers numbers in-store is concerned, but this does not mean that nothing’s happening. Retailers are currently busier than ever and it is precisely this flurry of activity that will mean 11 more months in which things are faster than they have ever been, for good or ill.