There is rather more to this enquiry than straightforward, honest-to-goodness paranoia. In normal circumstances, it would merely be symptomatic of healthy competition. The difference today is that the question is invested with a degree of venom and desperation that points towards increasingly uncertain trade rather than simple curiosity.
And so it proves, when any sort of response along the lines that “a lot of companies are feeling the breeze” is provided. There is almost immediate agreement, tempered with the caveat “but we seem to be alright at the moment”.
Translated, this means that shopfitters and store design consultancies may have sufficient jobs on their books to keep the bank manager happy, but order books are looking increasingly thin.
In the forthcoming September 5 issue of Retail Week, we will be publishing the Top Shopfitters league table. This has become an annual event for the magazine and has now been running for more than half a decade.
It has always been marked by the big getting bigger and the small gradually getting taken over or going out of business. What has also been noticeable is that there has been incremental year-on-year market growth more or less since the survey began.
However, this happy state of affairs appears to be at an end. Many retailers have now reached the conclusion that perhaps they have enough stores and that cost containment, rather than capital expenditure, is the order of the day.
And yet, not quite. The reality is that with schemes such as Bristol's Cabot Circus, Westfield London and St David’s 2 in Cardiff, new shops – even fashion stores – continue to be designed and fitted out.
The truth of the matter is that while certain retail sectors may be feeling pretty acute pain at the moment, this has yet to move along the supply chain to designers and builders.
The misfortunes of the UK's biggest fit-out organisation, Styles & Wood, have been fairly well documented over the past few months. That company will not be on its own when the new space pipeline is finally reduced to a trickle – and that seems likely be less than 12 months away.