The 0.6% like-for-like sales decline recorded by the BRC this week was reassuringly not too bad.

The 0.6% like-for-like sales decline recorded by the BRC this week was reassuringly not too bad. And that is grounds for a smidgen of much needed optimism after an August of social and economic turmoil that left everyone uncertain about the sector’s health.

Meadowhall on Tuesday afternoon didn’t feel like a shopping centre in the midst of a consumer crisis. Even in the North, where the economic winds are supposed to be blowing coldest, people were out, and the bag count said they weren’t just browsing, they were spending.

But anyone who gets carried away with these rays of sunshine is mad. The percentage increase in total sales in August was flattered by higher VAT and inflation – take those out and sales are down for many.

And the overall sales figures mask big chunks of the general retail market that are feeling a brutal squeeze. As Retail Week went to press we were awaiting trading updates from retailers such as Home Retail, which were widely expected to lay bare how tough conditions are for those selling products that are wants, not needs driven. Many in fashion are having a dismal time too.

In Meadowhall it was clear that the brands doing business were the ones that were exciting customers – Apple, Hollister, Primark. They trade on very different strengths, but what they have in common is that they’re all great at what they do. And what that shows is that being the best at what you do, whether that be product, price or experience, still makes the difference.

Hopes for Portas review

Mary Portas’ appointment as the Government’s high street tsar had its critics, not least Retail Week. But once the appointment was confirmed, the key thing was that retail’s voice was heard and that the right issues were identified.

Some time spent with her in Rotherham – a town centre decimated by Meadowhall – this week suggested she’s listening. She’s recognised the vital role of pro-business local councils, and the need for a common-sense approach when it comes to leases and bank finance. Equally importantly, some of the more shrill noises on multiple retail were absent, although planning is clearly on her radar.

Her report will be complete in November and towns like Rotherham show there is a need for action. Assuming she makes the right recommendations it’s vital they don’t join so many other government reviews in the long grass.