Making sense of the last 7 days

The results season is in full swing, providing the chance to take the sector’s temperature at last after one of the most volatile and unpredictable periods in memory.

Whether it was what was referred to – with massive understatement – as “unseasonable weather”or the Banana Republic-style run on Northern Rock, the year so far has brought a succession of jack-in-the-box surprises.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that the retail thermometer is recording wild temperature swings: the credit crunch has put private equity interest in retail on hold, but Sainsbury’s has opened its books to Delta Two; one sofa specialist, ScS, posted poor profits while rival Land of Leather celebrated a rise; and CBI data showed a sales rise in September, but, despite that reassurance, the jury is very much out on prospects for the vital months to come. The one constant is the “challenging conditions” chorus from store chiefs that has accompanied the updates – and the universal note of caution about high street conditions.

Everyone’s mind is focused now on Christmas, the make-or-break period. What will separate the sheep from the goats?

Former Asda boss Allan Leighton made a good point at the Marketing Society’s Retail Forum earlier this week. He said that success is 20 per cent strategy and 80 per cent execution – and it’s sound advice. In this difficult period, there’s so much that is beyond retailers’ control, but the one thing they can do is make sure that the business of retailing – from buying product to checkout – is done with as much efficiency and verve as possible. Better execution will up the odds on success and be a key distinction between retail’s winners and losers in the months to come.

A similar point was made at the same event by BRC chairman and former Kingfisher chief executive Sir Geoff Mulcahy. His advice on coping with tough times was “try harder”. He said: “The retailers that will do best are those that offer the best to customers and execute best – that is, the same retailers that do best in the good times.”

Challenging conditions can be an opportunity for top store groups to strengthen their positions. “What you don’t do,” Mulcahy concluded, “is turn the lights off.”