The mood music around the stores sector, and indeed in the boardroom, has frequently been downbeat since the credit crunch hit home with a vengeance late last year.
In the event there was no shortage of prize contenders because so many retailers have responded well to changed circumstances and there have been outperformers.
In their brief speeches as they collected their awards, Morrisons chief Marc Bolland and former Kingfisher supremo and departing chairman of the BRC Sir Geoff Mulcahy paid tribute to the vitality of UK retailing.
And it was a vitality reflected at our conference too. Last year the mood was nervous, heralding the turmoil to come. This year, the focus was on riding out and beating the downturn and valuable experience was shared, by speakers and from the floor. It would be wrong to pretend there aren’t difficulties aplenty to come, but it was clear retail is getting to grips with some of the big issues confronting it and – whisper it – there are opportunities to be had.
Perhaps Sir Geoff’s achievements most show that. After all, the Paternoster deal that created Kingfisher was done when there were 3 million unemployed, and he subsequently traded the business though a series of downturns. Today, of course, Kingfisher is the world’s third biggest home enhancement retailer. Evidence, always welcome, that the best will survive and thrive.
A new generation of talent
To the Fashion Retail Academy, where students are competing to represent the UK in a contest to come up with a great retail concept for the future.
In a Dragons’ Den-style contest, the teams presented their ideas to a hard-to-impress panel including the Greens – that’s Sir Philip and Tesco’s Terry. Finalists will be mentored by the retailers to hone ideas before the winner is decided at the World Retail Congress. Similar processes are under way in the US and Hong Kong, involving mentors like J Crew legend Mickey Drexler.
The students’ work and enthusiasm was impressive, illustrative of the new talent waiting in the wings. The backing of top retailers – Sir Philip came back from the US where he’s launching Topshop especially for the shortlisting – is testament to the development of people that remains vital, even during – most during? – a downturn.