Making sense of the last seven days

When Debenhams updates next Tuesday, the comparisons with John Lewis, which issued interims yesterday, are likely to be unflattering.

Debs’s claim to be Britain’s favourite department store is looking as outdated as last year’s fashions. Its tagline, “Styling the nation”, sounds like the triumph of hope over experience, given its recent trading performance.

JLP, in contrast, is motoring. Chairman Charlie Mayfield was cautious about the outlook, but had plenty to celebrate in the first half as the department store division ratcheted up solid increases in big categories such as fashion, electricals, home technology and furniture.

Despite admitting that trading conditions are getting harder, Mayfield was at pains to point out that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. He warned that gloom-mongering retailers could talk themselves into a worse slowdown than we already have.

But, in a week that brought morose comment from Next, mixed results from French Connection and a profit warning from JJB Sports, many retailers could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve not talked themselves into trouble – trouble has hit them like a 10-tonne truck.

JLP’s focus on product, quality and service holds lessons for its hard-pressed peers, as does its emphasis on cost control. When trading is challenging – retailspeak for bloody awful – it’s those old disciplines that make a difference.

No doubt, those principles will all be front-of-mind for Rob Templeman, who is coming under pressure to get Debenhams on the road to recovery. JLP may be in a class of its own, but its performance and prospects show that great retailers will ride out turbulence.

A vibrant industry

The untimely death of Anita Roddick highlighted, apart from the massive impact that she made, what a great industry retail is. Her story was typical of the stores trade; a tale of entrepreneurial vision, hard work, personal passion and love of success. She was representative of the sheer eclecticism of the sector – few business fields are home to a cast of characters that range from Roddick at one extreme to Sir Terry Leahy at another.

And Body Shop’s success was evidence of that other quality that makes retail so exciting – the chance to connect intimately with the public and make a tangible difference to their everyday lives. Roddick’s early death was sad news, but reflecting on her career is a reminder of the vibrancy of this industry. That in itself is fitting tribute to one of retail’s real pioneers.