Goodbye, summer – now the serious business starts. The first week of September always has the feeling of starting a new term, and in retail it’s the most important one of the year as the four-month countdown to Christmas kicks off in earnest.

If at the start of the year the retail gods had offered store chiefs the option of the sector being where it is now, they’d have jumped at the chance. While in some parts of the industry it’s been brutal, generally conditions have been challenging but navigable for all but the weakest retailers.

While retailers have employed all sorts of self-help measures, the key factor is that consumers are feeling better about life. They’re not reading daily headlines about economic calamity – instead they’re reading about our European neighbours emerging from recession. The fears of a 1920s-style crash are not going to be realised.

But don’t think consumers haven’t been changed by the speed and severity of the downturn from which we are now hopefully emerging. This week the amount of personal debt in the UK fell for the first time since records began in 1993. As became apparent in the US earlier this year, credit is no longer cool.

So consumers need reasons to spend, and that means deals and discounting will have to continue to be the order if the day. Whether in value or luxury, no retailer is going to be immune from the need to demonstrate genuine value in the run-up to this Christmas.

Combining a clear strategy and vision for the business with aggressive tactical moves to win share (p30) will be key for retailers, and the intense battle over the back to school market (p25) is just a taste of how competitive Christmas will be. Capacity may have come out of markets such as toys, but the battle to win that share
is going to be full-on.

It’s all good news for consumers, and while there will be the usual doom-laden speculation as the big day draws near, shoppers will always open their purses for Christmas. The sector has been fortunate in that the height of the recession passed outside of peak trading for most retailers, and with the economic gloom beginning to lift, there’s no reason why consumers won’t be spending money on Christmas 2009.

The big question is where they spend that money – and that’s when the retail basics of having the right product, at the right price, in the right stores come to
the fore. In this business, the margin for error is tiny.