What a difference a few days can make. This week’s financial meltdown is of a scale unknown by many working in retail.
Amid the fog of panic and gloom swirling around the City, it is hard to establish what the effect of this week’s events will be on retailers.
Brushing off the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Debenhams chief executive Rob Templeman said: “Do I think a bank going bust in the US will affect the consumer in the UK? No.”
Another retail chief told Retail Week: “Fashion retailers should be focusing on retailing and investing energy and money into product, not buying into the panic.”
It is hard to fathom that the fallout in the global economy – the bailing out of AIG and merger of HBOS with Lloyds – will not have any influence on shoppers’ psyche and the way retailers do business.
However, buried beneath the doom and gloom, there are positive signals that bode well for consumers, but they are likely to be felt further in the future and after the shockwaves have dissipated.
Templeman said that, while the situation is likely to remain tough for some time, “there are a few things heading in a positive direction” for shoppers and, ultimately, retailers.
He cited falling fuel prices and peaking food inflation as glimmers of hope in what is otherwise a depressing situation.
Templeman had reason to be bullish. Debenhams – One of the City’s favourite whipping boys – turned in a respectable performance during the year to August 30, with a like-for-like sales fall of only 0.9 per cent. Strong performances from its own-brand ranges and market share gains has helped it get on track to meet profit forecasts. Templeman said the retailer had outperformed the market in August, when total clothing sales were down year-on-year.
Another retailer whose performance has surprised some in City circles is French Connection. Womenswear powered ahead at the retailer, up 8 per cent in the first half, driven by the new impetus injected by its revised design team.
However, the challenge for French Connection lies in menswear, which must have performed particularly badly given the lack of figures provided for the category and the retailer’s overall flat sales growth.
The robust performances backed up figures published today by ONS, which revealed that total retail sales volumes rose 1.2 per cent between August and July, driven by clothing and footwear retailers, where sales climbed 4.1 per cent.
The vagaries of the ONS figures are well documented – already the BRC has lambasted the high rates of growth – but fashion and footwear are leading the retail performance, even if it has been driven by discounting.
So, in the midst of the depression created by this week’s unprecedented combination of events, there are signals that opportunities to grab sales are out there and that the fashion sector needs to be ready when they arise.
Retailers need to keep their heads when all around them are losing theirs.