But these difficult times are prompting the weekly publication of a litany of sector woes – rates revaluation, credit insurance, foreign exchange – that risks becoming tendentious. It is advisable, now and again, to take an extrospective view.
In its report UK Economic Outlook March 2009,PricewaterhouseCoopers assesses the vulnerability of 15 different industry sectors to the downturn. The food and non-food retail sectors fare relatively well, both of them among the four lowest in PricewaterhouseCoopers Sector Vulnerability Index.
This index, which combines 10 key economic and financial indicators, suggests that the metal products, financial services and hotels and restaurants sectors are the most vulnerable in the short term, followed by engineering, transport and construction.
The main factor behind these sectors’ rankings is their relatively high past cyclicality, combined in some cases with weak financial positions and/or limited growth potential.
The PricewaterhouseCoopers report observes that no sector of course will be immune to the effects of the recession and points out: “History is not destiny and there will always be considerable scope for individual companies within vulnerable sectors to outperform... Equally some firms in less vulnerable sectors may fail.”
Despite the retail sector’s relative invulnerability, it is clearly no stranger to failure. Big names have gone and others have yet to follow (some of the so-called tombstone trophies that glorify many a deal-maker’s desk may turn out to be only too appositely named). However, many other sectors must envy their retail counterparts, not least for their resourcefulness.
Retailers have three key resources – human, material and physical (or put another way, staff selling stuff in shops). Compared with most other sectors all three resources are capable of greater and speedier adaptability – a critical attribute in adversity.
The physical resource – the store estate – has far more mobility than bricks and mortar would imply. Landlords, whom Malcolm Walker defended so keenly last week, and for whom void avoidance is a top priority, are being obliged to offer unparalleled terms and incentives. Retailers are reshaping their portfolios; expanding through the demise of others or contracting through pre-packs of
The material resource – the goods being sold – is also adapting to market conditions through lower inventory levels and closer supplier collaboration.
Thirdly, the retention and/or recruitment of human resources are well adapted to recessionary times as the threat of mass unemployment looms ever larger.
It all comes down to capacity, the buzzword at last week’s Retail Week Conference. More market capacity for the winners; with resources flexed to full capacity.
Michael Poynor is chief retail adviser to PriceWaterhouseCoopers