The past week has brought more shocks than a course of ECT: the mighty Asda has been performing 'below plan'; like-...
The past week has brought more shocks than a course of ECT: the mighty Asda has been performing 'below plan'; like-for-likes went into tailspin at Next; and Morrison's unhappy acquisition of Safeway prompted yet another profit warning.

The question many retailers are asking is, how much bloodier is the high street going to get? Prospects look unremittingly grim. At Boots' prelims yesterday, chief executive Richard Baker told me that he sees no evidence of change any time soon. He is planning for comparable sales growth of just 0 to 2 per cent this year and said: 'Consumers simply have less money in their pockets and there's nothing on the horizon that's going to change that.'

So far, so bad. There's no doubt life is tough, but the maelstrom of dismal data threatens to suck down to the depths any signs of encouragement. And, however small they might be, those signs exist.

Sainsbury's, for so long the sick man of the grocery sector, is showing evidence of revival under Justin King's stewardship. Baker's Boots, despite the profit warnings, is in a far healthier state than it was under the old regime and the foundations to build upon have been laid. There also seems to be no stopping Debenhams under Messrs Templeman and Woodhouse. (When I looked at Debs' web site yesterday - admittedly during a two-day 25 per cent-off spectacular - it was impossible to enter because of overwhelming demand).

The ultimate symbol of continuing retail success is Tesco, where the maintenance of a healthy paranoia about complacency and the state of the competition has so far enabled the UK's biggest store group to advance relentlessly. Astonishingly, as we report in this week's Retail Week, Tesco is expected to devour half of all non-food UK retail sales growth this year.

That in itself will scare the daylights out of some retailers, but Tesco's strength - and it is only 10 years since Sainsbury's held the top grocery position - should provide inspiration rather than reason to give up the ghost.

No doubt, this year will be painful for many retailers as costs carry on climbing and price deflation continues to bite. Some weaker players will 'go skint'; there will be job freezes; capex on store refurbs and the like will be slashed. But this will be the year when operational excellence comes into its own.

The days of calling in management consultancies for a bit of 'blue-sky thinking' are over for the time being. This is the time of the skilful buyer, merchandiser, supply chain wizard - in short, the time of the good old-fashioned merchant who understands product, shoppers and all points in between.