Abigail Townsend: The culture of excuses on the UK high street

Retailers - stop blaming the World Cup and raise your own game
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The Independent Online

As predictable as the rain that finally poured down last week to spoil the summer, the latest glut of excuses has come tripping off the City's tongue. I say City but what I mean is the high street. Even HMV boss Alan Giles admitted retailers were always looking to blame some- one else - before promptly blaming the "World Cup effect" himself. If Sven had had as many excuses as most retailers, he might still have a job.

Not that Mr Giles should be singled out. He is not alone in blaming the World Cup for tough trading. Last week, for instance, we also heard from John Lewis, where sales had slipped 2.6 per cent because of the football, the tennis and the heat. And many others have been murmuring about the World Cup effect for a while.

But I'm at a loss as to how this really could have hit home so badly. For a start, let's assume we're only talking England matches here, rather than, say, Togo versus Switzerland. Getting knocked out in the quarter- final meant we played only five games, and two of these were in the evening. So that's a grand total of three football games that have caused our high street such pain and suffering as patriotic fans chose the beautiful game over shopping.

Others, of course, have thanked the World Cup, particularly the supermarkets. Waitrose, for instance, which is part of the John Lewis group, reported a surge in sales in the last week of June as the combination of footie and sunshine led to a rush on, probably, beer and barbecues.

But whether the football - and, for that matter, the weather and Wimbledon - have given retailers something to moan about or something to celebrate, this is not what they should be concentrating on. Business is not for the short term, flitting from one event to another in the vain hope it will prop up trading for another few weeks. It should be about the long term - building customer bases, keeping them happy, giving them the products and the services they want, at a price that suits and in an environment they enjoy.

Of course, the City is not blameless in this. The pressure on retailers to perform, all the time and to order, is tough and rarely if ever inflicted on any other sector to the same degree. The chief executive of Next, Simon Wolfson, has long muttered about the heavy burden of providing regular updates on underlying sales. Short-termism is rife in the City, and nowhere more so than in retail.

But then again, that surely is just another excuse. Have a good offering, keep your customers happy - and you'll keep the City happy. And you won't need to blame the World Cup.

Have a care

So Independent Living Group (ILG) is to be sold off, in a hotly contested auction, probably for as much as £100m. That's roughly around £5m per home - the sort of money you would expect to pay for a luxurious Surrey pad, not a nursing home for people in need of dedicated care.

There is something about all this that leaves an extremely bad taste in the mouth. And I don't just mean ILG. Rather it's the whole merry-go-round as investors rush to move into the sector. Deals are done, homes change hands, more deals are done, more homes are sold, and so on.

Of course there are sound business decisions behind these deals. Neither is any single person involved in the sale or acquisition of nursing homes doing a single thing wrong. And I am sure that the care of patients is, quite genuinely, a priority for all involved.

But morally it still sits very uneasily. Care homes are places that many would argue should be run by governments or local authorities under only the strictest guidelines and supervision. Because they are also places that are open to abuse.

Most patients, in either private or state-run homes, are vulnerable. They should be protected at every opportunity - and the homes they live in not just sold to the highest bidder.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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