Christmas trading 2011: results table – Wednesday (and final?) update

25th January 2012

WH Smith traditionally brings the Christmas results season to a close, and here they are, down 6% in the high streets and 3% at their Travel division.  Although this was accompanied by the usual statements about the entertainment categories (CD, DVD, now an infinitesimal part of Smith’s mix), and “resilience”, “challenge” and “cost controls” all made their usual appearances, there was little indicating retail progress.  Strong categories?  Kobo and online?  Former British Bookshops stores?  You can manage a business for cash for so long (and it’s been so long that it’s remarkable), but at some point you have to sell more product, to more customers, more often.  That’s what we want to hear from WHS, and it’s what’s missing again.

19th January 2012

I’ve been on the road for the past couple of days, and quite a few gaps in the table have been filled during that time.  Strong sales from Primark and Matalan indicate that there’s still a desire for value when it’s done well.  Of course, you might say the same about Peacocks, which by all accounts remained operationally profitable, but has been crippled by debt and forced into administration, threatening the biggest one-off loss of retail jobs since Woolworths in 2008.

The Centre for Retail Research in Nottingham has published a sobering schedule, detailing retail failures from 2010-2012.   They state that, over the five years 2007-2011, 173 retail businesses folded, comprising a breathtaking 18,342 stores, and over 150,000 jobs.  Questions please to the CRR –here’s the link.

Back to Christmas 2011, and at the other end of the fashion scale, Burberry and Mulberry have announced excellent growth, but it’s been unclear whether the numbers have referred specifically to UK retail, so I’ve omitted them.

No such qualms with not-retailers-at-all Greene King and JD Wetherspoon.  Looks as though we still have money to spend on a night at the pub!  And animals had a good Christmas, even if their owners cut back, with Pets at Home up 4.9%.

I posted a like-for-like book sales for Oxfam last week, and this has been followed by a flurry of other figures, reported in the Guardian.

Biggest news from the mid-week period has been from the electricals retailers, with Dixons (Currys/PCWorld) hailing -7.0% as a relative success, and Comet’s  -14.5% a reflection of the grim condition of a business struggling through a sale process, and pretty much disowned by Kesa.

However, I think there are good things to be said about Dixons, but they need a separate blog – watch this space…

16th January 2012

Just three additions today – Boots and The Perfume Shop, both looking good; and the McArthurGlen outlet centres, which appear to have had an exceptional season.  It’s worth bearing in mind that Christmas historically has peaked early at outlet “villages” like Swindon and Cheshire Oaks – outlet customers search out the best bargains early, and then complete their shopping in traditional malls and high streets – from memory, the final weekend in November was typically the best in the run-up to Christmas.

Who are we still waiting for?  Of those who made Christmas trading announcements last year: Electricals – Currys/PCWorld and Comet; books/media – WH Smith and Waterstones (though the latter is now privately owned, so is under no shareholder pressure to announce); fashion: Primark, Matalan; DIY: B&Q (though Christmas is hardly a prime season for them, it’d be good to benchmark their performance against Homebase and GCG).

Who would we like to hear from?  Big, successful private businesses like Arcadia and River Island; PE-owned growers like Pets at Home and Hobbycraft; discount grocers like Aldi and Lidl, and bargain retailers like Poundland; niche successes like Jack Wills and Cath Kidston; mega-brands like Selfridges…  It’s a long list, and any analysis of published numbers is inevitably just a snapshot of a sector which is far less plc-dominated than in the past.

13th January 2012

A quick final update before the weekend is upon us.  Has Tesco had enough press coverage?  As Twitter noted last night during News at Ten, you’d think they’d called in the administrators…  Still, Philip Clarke has been very candid about the challenges Tesco faces, and has been reminded (as The Times editorial today emphasises) that no company stays at the top forever.  I’m thinking hard about Tesco Extras, and a separate blog might follow…

Nils Pratley on The Trouble at Tesco

Harry Wallop on Is This the End of Tesco Dominance? (QTWTAIN)

Meanwhile…  Good numbers from Original Factory Shop, The Entertainer and Superdrug, but another tough season for Theo Fennell.  Nul points to Asda and Ted Baker for announcing total growth for Christmas, but not like-for-likes.  Of course, I appreciate they don’t have to announce anything at all, but if I had shares in Wal-Mart, I’d want to know what was what.

12th January 2012

After a positive start to the week, things have turned ugly with poor results from Tesco spooking the markets, and throwing fresh doubt over the sector.

As you can see from the table above, Tesco has performed significantly worse than other supermarkets (and M&S food, which has been broken out separately in reporting, and which saw a like-for-like increase of 3%).

House of Fraser has posted some remarkably good numbers, but it isn’t clear whether they’re inc or ex-VAT.  For the record, I’m a committed ex-VAT person – including a variable rate of tax in your sales is no way to accurately reflect like-for-like shopper behaviour.

(At Borders, 75%-80% of our sales were VAT-free – books, newspapers and magazines – and the remainder was VATted – stationery, CDs, DVDs, toys etc.  We also paid a “special rate” of VAT, where eg a CD-ROM was attached to a book on computing or language learning, which reflected the fact that part of the whole product was zero-rated.  I’d like to think that the HMRC officers required to create and police these rules, and audit the proceeds, cost rather more than the total tax take.)

Anyway, back to Christmas 2011, and as expected, times were tough at the likes of Halfords, Thorntons and Mothercare.  Argos had a particularly grim set of results – for how long will 750 stores be sustainable?

Some more variances to reporting periods, highlighted in green.  These were the reporting periods twelve months ago:

  • Tesco LY: 6 weeks to 8th January
  • JD Sports: 5 weeks to 1st January
  • New Look: 15 weeks to 8th January
  • House of Fraser: 5 weeks to 8th January

FTSE 100 retailers are now shown in bold.

10th January 2012

Plenty of results added to today’s table, including a couple of outriders that you may not have seen reported elsewhere!

Game takes over at the unhappy end of the chart; their LY numbers are highlighted because of a change in reporting period – for 2010, they reported five weeks to 8th January, this time around, an additional three weeks pre-Christmas were included.  The Co-op also made a change – the prior year numbers relate to a 13 week period, October – December.

There’s some inc-VAT (Debenhams) and ex-VAT (Majestic) differentiation, which given the rate jump from 17.5% to 20% has a bearing on different companies’ numbers.  And of course, these are just sales – not profits.  The rumbling undercurrent – “of course, their margins will have taken a hit” – accompanies many of these announcements.

Nevertheless, it’s great to see many more pluses than minuses on the schedule – long may it continue…

9th January 2012

And they’re off.

It looks as though this year, every media source and his dog is going to be publishing regular updates on Christmas trading, so I’ll keep this brief, and update it as required.

I’ve included last year’s numbers, where I have them – and as this is a busy office, I haven’t dug out LYs where I previously didn’t have them – I’ll try and infill if Edwin Drood becomes unwatchable.

Worth noting that, where comparisons exist, the order of companies is exactly the same as last year.  (The reporting periods are all similar, so these are good comparisons.)

It’s worth remembering that bad results always take longer to calculate than good ones…

And for the many hundreds of you who enjoyed my “8o towns” blog from last week, I’ve shown store numbers.  Counting stores is always an inexact art, but most of the chains are on multiples of eighty.  Some will stay that way – supermarkets, Next.  But there’s restructuring in the air.

Just to keep us all honest, this article from the Telegraph highlights some of the more imaginative ways that Christmas performance can be characterised.

And, lest we forget, the following chains probably won’t be providing Christmas trading updates:

Barratts Priceless, Blacks, D2 Jeans, Hawkins Bazaar/Tobar, La Senza, and Past Times.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls, but let’s hope stores can be rescued, and jobs maintained.

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Big Box Man: options for Tesco and Dixons

The festive season hangover – the publication of Christmas trading results – is almost completed.  WH Smith will announce next week and, on past form, that is likely to be the end of it.  Thereafter, we will have to wait for actual half-year and full-year reporting, so that we can understand the levels of discounting that were needed to deliver some of those better-than-expected like-for-likes.

Away from the real strugglers, two businesses caught my attention.  The first was, of course, Tesco, whose -2.3% LFLs sat uncomfortably next to Sainsbury’s +2.1% and Morrisons +0.7%.  CEO Philip Clarke has now been in post for well over a hundred days, but he is acknowledging that Tesco has to change.  His comments, allied to the poor trading figures, caused a sharp fall in Tesco’s share price, but it’s very clear that action is under way.

I’ve written before about the grudging nature of the Tesco store experience (here), and the sense I always get that the best interests of the consumer have to be aligned with the best interests of Tesco, rather than the other way around.  It looks as though Clarke understands this – the Big Price Drop was yesterday’s response to today’s problem, and achieved the double of being trumped by other supermarkets’ vouchers whilst alienating loyal Clubcard holders; Fresh & Easy is looking like a bullet that needs to be bitten.

And here’s what interested me most: in conversation with Retail Week’s Alex Lawson, Clarke said:

You can go on growing space but we probably won’t be growing very big hypermarket space any more. We have got a few hypermarkets coming but will be announcing more on the bias of stores in April.

In other words, less of this in future?

And rather more of this?

We’ve seen problems for big box operators, as a result of online competition, in specialist sectors – Comet, Best Buy, Borders, Virgin Megastore and many more.  However, the suggestion that Non-Food isn’t pulling its weight at Tesco; that Non-Food is as vulnerable in Tesco to online competition and showrooming as it is in less diversified specialist retailers – well, that is quite a sea-change.  With 10% of all retail spending in the UK now taking place online, it’s inevitable that Tesco will be suffering attrition from online-only retailers, but the strategic shift implied by Philip Clarke (presaging an announcement in April) could herald the biggest shift in the pattern of UK retailing since Woolworth failed.  Perhaps it also paves the way for Tesco to save the high street…?!

However, I don’t buy the “big box dinosaur” argument, although – as the Tesco Extra picture above demonstrates – you can reach a point when the size of your store becomes oppressive, and just adds to the unwelcomeness that can be part of the Tesco experience.

But good big boxes will survive and thrive, both because retail parks work exceptionally well (particularly away from London) as the most cost-effective way of bringing a diverse retail offer to a scattered population, but also because the big box experience, when done well, can deliver results that the high street just can’t match.

And so to Dixons.  It’s been a filthy Christmas in electricals, with Best Buy closing down and Comet getting worse and worse as Kesa takes time to sell, leaving Dixons looking relatively healthy with a -7.0% like-for-likes.  Chief Executive John Browett has been concentrating on changing the way the stores look and – more importantly – the way the customer feels about his business.  I think he’s on the road to success – I liked the “Black” store at Westfield, and I really liked the refurbished Currys/PCWorld retail park store I visited earlier this week.

Like the store in this photograph, a consolidated electricals offer is now available under one roof, and sensibly the consumer electronics – audio, visual and computing – are on the ground level, with white goods – washing machines and vacuum cleaners – on a mezzanine.  This makes for a smaller and more efficient footprint, but it also enables Dixons to create an electronics offer that I think makes John Lewis look tired and off-pace.

John Lewis?  Bow, bow ye upper middle classes!  But where JLP presents a brown goods world of carefully delineated TVs, radios, hifi and computing, the new Dixons layout recognises that we don’t use devices in this way any more, and that the distinctions between various product lines are now blurred.  Its layout and flow presents a more effective offer for the consumer, and invites them to enhance their home electronics more effectively than old-style competitors.  Wireless sound systems and big screens are now computer adjuncts, not “hi-fi” and “television”, and Dixons gets it.

Their Knowhow sub-brand message is driven home with relentless effectiveness – we really do understand this stuff, it says.  Much has been made of the culture changes within the business, recognising (at last) that an ill-informed hard sell in an intimidating environment just doesn’t work any more.  The new stores are customer friendly with good graphics, plenty of explanation and demonstration items, and informed but unpushy service.

Dixons has a huge estate – over 600 stores of various ages and configurations – and it has much to do to bring them all into line with current best practice.  I’m optimistic, though – I think they’ve really got something here.  However – please – they’ve got to do something about branding.  The new stores aren’t “two stores under one roof” – they offer an integrated selection of electricals for the kitchen and every other room in the house (and office).  Currys was a dismal washing machine shop, with neglible brand heritage (and it’s a word that looks poor on fascias, sounds blah when you say it).  PC World harks back to the glories of Windows 95, but it leads with Apple and Kindle – suddenly, “PC World” sounds about as on-brand as Radio Rentals.  Time to can these hoary old brands, and return to the one with the best heritage in the sector:

Images: Wikipedia; The Guardian; Peterborough Today


The Top Eighty retail locations in Britain?

A consistent theme in retail analysis over the past 12 months has been that, whereas 5/10/20 years ago, a non-food chain required 200/300/500 stores to achieve national coverage, today only 50-80 might be needed.

I don’t think that any one person is the author of this insight (but I’ll credit them if I’m mistaken).  The thinking is as follows:

We now have a network of modern city centres and regional malls across the UK.  These provide up-to-date retail space, with the flexibility in size and height that modern retail chains seek.  By way of comparison, here’s Westfield at White City:

…and here’s a typical mall from the 1980s (in this case, a roofed-over 1960s construction):

The best shopping centres are offering their customers more than ever before; the rest of the field is struggling to keep up.  And a high proportion of the total population is now within 30 minutes drive-time of a first class mall or city centre.

The other motor of change is, of course, online shopping; as this blog far-from-exclusively confirmed last week, the UK leads the world in adopting online retail, with 9% of all sales (by value) going to internet sites rather than bricks-and-mortar stores.

Two of Britain’s strongest retailers, John Lewis and Next, announced their Christmas trading results yesterday, and they underline the trends above.  JLP has had a soaraway Christmas, with its stores anchoring many of the “key 80” locations.  Total Partnership sales from physical stores are up by 9.3%, and online growth has roared away, up 27.9%.  Next’s total sales were up by 3.1%, but this was a tale of two formats; stores were down -2.7%, and online was up +16.9%.  John Lewis has fewer than 40 department stores; Next has around 500 shops.

Of course, different stores have different demographics.  A high-fashion teen chain and a smart furniture business might both prosper with 50 stores nationwide, but their customers wouldn’t all be best served by the same locations.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of digging out a hornet’s nest and poking it with a sharp stick, I thought I’d define 80 primary British locations for 2012.  I’ve grouped them by location type, which I’ll enlarge on as we go along:

All of these centres are well-established, and are pretty evenly distributed across the country.  Metrocentre is the oldest, but their owners continue to invest to keep abreast of consumer and tenant requirements.  With the exception of Merry Hill (now a Westfield), they all sit on motorway junctions, rather than in city centres, and attract customers from a wide geographical region.  Typically these megamalls are close to a retail park, so that big-box sellers of furniture and DIY are also represented.  (And I appreciate that Braehead and Silverburn are different malls in different parts of Glasgow, so I’m already making two count for one…)

Just a few years ago, central London’s shopping offer consisted of the West End and Knightsbridge, with the offer elsewhere pretty strictly local.  Today, a 40 minute ride on the Central Line takes you from one vast Westfield to the other, and en route you pass through (or at least close by) four other huge, separate markets.  The City has evolved from a few poky high street stores on Cheapside to a major retail offer stretching from One New Change to Fenchurch Street (with an appendage out at Canary Wharf), and stores have grown bigger and more numerous in Covent Garden and Knightsbridge/King’s Road.  The West End – from Fitzrovia to St James’s – offers the finest concentration of shopping in the world, and it’s the world that now shops here; increasingly, London caters for a global rather than national catchment, as the old family shopping trips from the provinces to the West End are replaced by crowds of Chinese tourists with their newly enabled credit cards, leading the charge at the Selfridges sale.

England and the Octopus was the title of a book published a hundred years ago by Clough Williams-Ellis, in which he expressed his concern that London, the Great Maw, would consume the countryside around it, growing unstoppably.  At the time, he was probably worried about the rural charms of Dollis Hill or Morden; today, London dominates the economic activity of everything in an eighty mile radius – commuting distance for the capital’s huge workforce.

Much (too much?) of the UK’s wealth is concentrated into this region, which extends from the outer suburbs (Brent Cross, Romford) to the great University cities and the coast.  Many of these towns are smaller than, say, Huddersfield, and some are debatable – is Crawley more worthy than High Wycombe, Newbury or Basingstoke?  Brent Cross is just too small for the Megamall list, and – with expansion repeatedly stalled – is no longer the thing of wonder it once was.

Travelling across the Octopus is often a challenge – only a stark fool would drive the eleven miles from Kingston and Croydon unless his life depended on it – so there are plenty of prosperous shopping hubs; this list only covers the larger and more obvious among them.

A slightly contentious list here, particularly as some of these towns are proper regional centres in their own right – Bath, Chester and York have been important for 2000 years.  However, what all these towns have in common is high tourist spend, and enviable concentrations of local wealth.  Indeed, it’s the history at Aquae Sulis, Deva and Eboracum that ensures the tourists keep coming.

Cornwall is a poor county, but a strong tourist destination – there are national fashion chains a-plenty in small towns like Newquay and St Ives.  The same effect can be seen in pockets elsewhere in the UK – Aldeburgh in Suffolk boasts a Jack Wills, for instance.

This is perhaps the most obvious schedule.  Almost all of the major cities of England, Scotland and Wales have seen huge, strategic redevelopment in their city centres to ensure that they retain their importance.  Schemes like Liverpool One, Cardiff St David’s and Bristol’s Cabot Place have brought new vigour into previously moribund centres; there are still a handful of cities on this list where development has stalled, and there’s the Athens of the North, where the ongoing tram developments might have been specifically designed to keep consumers out.  Nevertheless, these are great cities that can guarantee footfall and spending.  (nb: if I’d included Ireland, Belfast (UK) and Dublin (RoI) would of course be on this list.)

“The Best of the Rest” is an ugly term, and it covers a broad sweep of locations, from affluent Solihull to struggling Stoke.  It’s a list that could easily inflame local loyalties – I haven’t found room for Portsmouth, Taunton, Blackpool or Stirling, but in setting an arbitrary figure of 80, I had to call a halt somewhere.  Some of these locations are significant population centres, but they aren’t generating growth, and their town centres are sorry echoes of their former selves.  Doncaster is here in part because it was Mary Portas’s focus, but it also stands for many other post-industrial towns in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the West Midlands that have seen better times.

And that’s my 80.  It won’t be the same as yours, and it certainly won’t be the same as any particular retail chain’s.  This is a blog, it isn’t science.  Before signing any lease, a good retailer will match careful demographic analysis against their own gut feeling and enterprise; they’ll be looking for the next right place to be, not a town that enjoyed its greatness in the 19th or 20th centuries.  I’ve missed off the outlet parks (Bicester, Gun Wharf), and I’ve largely skipped over the retail parks in places like Broughton, Birstall and Kinnaird – huge destinations locally, but little known outside their catchments.

But – most importantly – getting reductive to 80 underlines the challenges facing the smaller towns.  Let’s travel from Watford to Nottingham on the M1 – 110 miles, passing Milton Keynes and Leicester (shoo-ins for the list) and Northampton (very borderline), but omitting (deep breath) Hemel Hempstead, Luton, Dunstable, Bedford, Bletchley, Rugby, Wellingborough, Kettering, Market Harborough, Nuneaton, Loughborough, Burton… twelve towns among the hundreds that were once must-have locations for national retailers.  They still have stores there, but now, increasingly, they’ll be looking at their leases and reconsidering their options.

Images: overseaspropertymall.com; superstock.co.uk


Amazon: discounts, desire and dissent

There’s been an explosion of righteous anger directed at Amazon in the United States over the past week, following the launch of its one-day Price Check programme:

The gist of this – as you will already know – is that the Amazon customer pops into their local bricks-and-mortar retailer, chain or indie, scans the barcode and price of their desired product into their smartphone, pings this free sample of market research over to Amazon, and enjoys a discount on the product as a result.

From sea to shining sea, there has been an explosion of disgust from competing US retailers and commentators  – although Amazon is only formalising and rewarding a long-entrenched consumer behaviour.  The practice of “showrooming” – online consumers using brick shops as unpaid research and product testing facilities – is well established.  As Jonathan Main of Crystal Palace’s Crow on the Hill bookshop tweeted last weekend:

Jonathan Main

ooh look, a pair of showrooming hipsters.It’s not a good look walking all the way around the shop with yr phone set to camera, book in hand.

However, Amazon has crossed a line by encouraging and rewarding this behaviour, and is suddenly under fire from US Senators, noted authors and others.  Here’s a digest of opprobrium from the MobyLives blog, complete with a splendid suggestion that Amazon should pay an “affiliate fee” to the brick retailers from whose knowledge and curacy they’re benefitting.  And here’s Richard Russo in the New York Times, reporting reactions from well-known authors – Stephen King, Scott Turow etc – to Amazon’s move, with less hysteria, and a more considered appreciation of what’s at stake.

Scott [Turow] reminds me what happened the last time someone stood up to Amazon. Nearly two years ago, the Macmillan publishing group adopted a new sales model that would cost Macmillan in the short run, but allow other companies to enter or remain in the e-book market without having to take a loss on every sale. Amazon’s response to more competition? They refused to sell not merely Macmillan’s e-books, but nearly every physical book Macmillan published. Amazon eventually backed down, but its initial response helped shape a widespread sense that it envisions a world in which there will be no other booksellers or publishers, a world where, history suggests, Amazon may not use its power benignly or for the benefit of literary culture.

And yet, and yet…

Amazon’s positioning is consistent – like Wal-Mart, their constant focus is on reducing prices and adding value for their customers, and all of their actions are directed at this goal.  As Jeff Bezos pithily sums up:  “There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less.  We will be the second”.

Amazon discounts heavily, but doesn’t appear to its millions of customers to be an asset-stripping, cost-shredding retailer – its website and apps work like a dream, its web content is compendious, its eReader has defined the market, and its logistics are impeccable.  Unless the customer has a vested interest in the status quo (in itself a suspect motivation), what’s not to like?

The Word magazine (tag line: “Intelligent Life on Planet Rock”) operates a busy blogging site, with hundreds of regular contributors who are literate, informed and witty.  It’s been running a thread titled:  How is the Kindle working out for everyone?, and the answer – almost unanimously – is, it’s working out brilliantly, thanks, and I’ll never buy another paperback as long as I live.

Amazon delivers what customers want, but for some profound psychological reason, this doesn’t appear to be enough for Amazon – a win somehow isn’t a real WIN unless the competition is left coughing up blood in the gutter.  It holds its retail competitors, its suppliers, and the jurisdictions in which it trades, in barely disguised contempt.  Because they don’t share Amazon’s absolute commitment to value for the customer, they are, ipso facto, incomprehensibly selfish and feeble.

So, for Jeff Bezos, there are two types of company.  However, there is only one type of world. One in which we need to cooperate as well as compete, one in which our actions have a social cost as well as a fiscal value.

There’s a sense in which Amazon’s mantra is Tea Party Commerce – the only thing that matters is what’s good for the individual; on balance, the customer’s low price is worth any number of negative outcomes elsewhere in the value and quality chain.  As author Tom Perrota puts it in Russo’s NYT piece:

People have to understand that their short-term decision to save a couple bucks undermines their long-term interest in their community and vital, real-life literary culture.

This is about much more than poor, lovely bookshops, and the whole “Bookstores–those holy, papery pockets of goodness and light” argument.  Indeed, while book people will always be vocal and often small-c conservative/big-L liberal, books weren’t formally included in the Amazon Price-Check promotion at all.

Amazon provides individual consumers with a great-value, highly reliable solution to many of its shopping needs, and books are just a minority part of its commercial mix; there is every indication that it aspires to become the largest retailer in the world.  However, Amazon is so pointedly committed to YOU, the Always Right, Always First, Individual Customer, YOU, that they create impoverishment elsewhere which perhaps YOU (the customer) haven’t considered, or might not be wholly comfortable with.

Now, we are on very shaky ground here, because I don’t want to imply that giving the customer a good deal is depriving manufacturers of their Bentleys, publishers of their corner offices, or brick retailers of an extra slice of toast for breakfast.  And lecturing consumers on how to spend their limited personal budgets is at best sanctimonious, at worst just crass.  There is, however, a broader cost to pursuing lowest prices and disregarding everything else, when the value to the consumer starts to deprive the broader community.

Mary Portas’s report High Street Review, commissioned by David Cameron, has been published today.  You can read it here, and I’m going to withhold comment until I’ve digested both the report and the reaction over the next couple of days.  In introducing the report, Portas has stated:

I don’t want to live in a Britain that doesn’t care about community. And I believe that our high streets are a really important part of pulling people together in a way that a supermarket or shopping mall, however convenient, however entertaining and however slick, just never can.

Our high streets can be lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community.  I fundamentally believe that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow.

Her argument is being framed as anti-out of town, but it is also implicitly anti-online.

Out-of-town shopping can certainly suck the life out of a town centre, if that centre isn’t pro-actively managed and repurposed.  But local retail jobs will still exist (albeit fewer of them), and the retailers will still be paying their business rates to the local council, and their taxes to central government.  The consumer is getting better value and convenience, but at the expense of a vibrant town centre.  These things can be fixed.  And most brick retailers, wherever they’re situated, will raise funds for charities, support local schools and sports clubs, and add something back into the community they serve.

The very best value for the individual consumer, however, comes from online retailers who eschew these niceties; who avoid paying sales taxes and corporation taxes by every legal means (typically relying on laws that pre-date the creation of the online channel), and whose contribution to charity, education, the arts or recreation, is negligible.  Local retail employment vanishes, and both high street and retail park will in due course be tinned-up.

It isn’t the job of consumers to seek anything other than the best deal for themselves and their families; and constant change has been a factor for retailers since the first recognisably modern shops opened in the 18th century.  But we are running the risk that, by saving ourselves money in the short term, we will become more impoverished, both financially and spiritually.  Interesting times indeed.

Lord Kitchener: University of Bolton, data.bolton.ac.uk