Everyone knows retail is hard right now. Of the three, Home Retail is having the toughest time as the squeeze on discretionary spending and collapse of the housing market hits Argos and Homebase. The huge write-down in Homebase’s value is of particular embarrassment: not long ago it was being lauded for its shift towards the softer end of furnishings, but this may have actually accelerated its problems.
Even so, the big lesson of this week’s announcements is that the best retailers are proving resilient as we enter recession. Arcadia, Debenhams and Argos managed creditable sales performances, and are all being managed very tightly and focusing on getting their offers right. With all three admitting trading has got tougher over recent weeks, these skills will be needed in spades in the months ahead.
Life may be tough for retailers, but out in payment card land everyone’s a winner. It is a place where your “customers” have no choice about who they buy from, where you can levy charges willy-nilly and if one of them is outlawed – not to worry, just come up with another one.
Whether it be HSBC and RBS’s switch from Maestro to Visa debit cards, or Mastercard ramping up its existing fees and introducing new ones, this self-regulating industry shows scant regard for the pressures their retail customers are under, and indeed those faced by consumers, who unknowingly end up paying the fees through higher prices.
The dispute with landlords over rents has shown retailers can unite to fight unjust systems that affect the industry as a whole, and the fight for a fair, simple and transparent system of card charges is one every retailer should sign up to.
And if that can’t be achieved, maybe other retailers should follow Ikea’s move and start levying a charge on cards. Sure, it would be controversial. But if the retail industry came together to explain to consumers why, they might realise that their flexible friend isn’t such a good friend after all.
Watch Tim Danaher and George MacDonald discuss the week’s retail news in TGi Friday