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White sky in the morning, profits warning!

How will the snow affect the UK retail landscape?

While the news at the time focused on stranded air passengers, a crippled transport network and the need for some inventive parenting to explain why Father Christmas was unable to deliver presents on time, the after-effects of December’s heavy snowfall are now being felt strongly on the UK high streets and shopping centres.

With the tinsel and fairy lights still in full view, it has been a far from Happy New Year for the number of retailers forced to announce that their sales were lower than expected with the consquences ranging from store closures and job losses to profits warnings. Many cited the unwelcome cold snap as compounding difficulties brought about by the economic crisis, changing consumer habits and threats appearing from non-traditional competitors.

First to register concern were HMV, who admitted in an unscheduled trading statement, that like-for-like sales across its UK and Ireland outlets had plunged by 13.6% in December. Having seen other music and entertainment retailers, including Zavvi, Our Price, Tower Records and even Woolworths bite the dust in recent years it isn’t surprising that the entertainment specialist is feeling the heat while the rest of us freeze.

Zeitgeist has already touched on how ‘In some industries, the concept of owning something tangibly has become redundant;‘, with music and film sitting high on that list. More worryingly for HMV as the owner of Waterstones bookshops is Amazon‘s online dominance of the category and the rise of devices like the Kindle and regular smartphones that are likely to eat into book sales in the coming years.

Deeper Problems

While the sub-zero temperatures may have kept shoppers out of their stores the weather can’t take all of the blame. This weekend, this half of Zeitgeist bought a CD as a friends birthday present. A quick look online showed the item retailing on HMV.com at £8.99, however in-store I was obliged to pay £17.99. The Sales Assistant helpfully told me that the difference was because online sales are shipped from Guernsey. I rather suspect that the lower price has more to do with the fact that other online stores such as Amazon.co.uk and Play.com are also selling the item for £8.99 than where the item is shipped from.

It’s not hard to see why the bricks-and-mortar stores are in so much trouble when they have to sell items for nearly double the online price to cover their overheads. In this instance the extra cost doubles as a ‘Failure to Plan‘ tax for me, but increasingly shoppers will go online for their entertainment needs rather than paying a premium for the convenience of getting it immediately on the high street. Alternatively they’ll simply download or stream it and do away with the need for any physical material purchase.

This final option shows how behaviour change can be brought about with the right motivations. For years now, we have been encouraged to reduce unnecessary waste and raw materials to help the environment. However, it is the convenience of having music, film, games and books stored digitally, rather on discs in plastic boxes or paper, that has proved more of a driver than any desire to save the planet.

Others Affected

Another retailer to be affected by how we now spend our leisure time is Games Workshop who issued a profits warning of their own soon after.

Two other retailers who also issued a now on-trend profits warning are greeting cards merchants Clinton Cards and maternity and babyware retailer Mothercare.

For Clintons this is the second such warning in six months and time will tell whether ‘strategic intiatives‘ taken by the board will have the desired effect or whether as a nation, a new generation is growing up to wish ‘Happy Birthdays’ and ‘Merry Chistmases’ via text message or social media sites.

Encroachment on their traditional market by the major multiples hasn’t helped Mothercare and brokers Seymour Pierce have questioned quite how much of their problems are down to the snow.

With the Christmas period so crucial for many retailers there may be more similar statements being prepared in boardrooms up and down the land. The slightly milder weather in early January may help ‘The Sales’ boost some bottom lines, but with a number of retailers choosing to delay exposing shoppers to the increase in VAT the bargain hunters may not spend enough to make up the shortfall, particularly if they are saving for a more expensive 2011. If a handful of retailers do go under it begs the question, ‘Who will take over their retail space and what will the retail landscape look like in a couple of years from now?’.

Such gloomy announcements from household names will do little to help the economy and improve consumer confidence, particularly once the seemingly permanent VAT rise comes into effect everywhere.

In the meantime we’ll have to wait and see what legacy the snow is going to leave in other sectors such as insurance, utilities and travel. Either way, it might be an idea to start saving now for those premiums and gas bills.

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