James Thompson: On the high street, bad weather helps sort out the weak from the strong

Business View
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The Independent Online

Sir Stuart Rose, the former chief executive of Marks & Spencer, was famously made to eat his words when a sustained deluge followed his comment "weather is for wimps" in 2007. This is not a phrase that Marc Bolland, the current boss of M&S, will use today when he unveils what are expected to be the retail chain's weakest underlying UK sales for three years, dragged down by lacklustre womenswear trading over the 13 weeks to 30 June.

Mr Bolland would be on safe ground to blame the wettest April and June on record for dire sales of T-shirts, dresses and bikinis – echoing complaints by DIY retailers selling garden furniture and barbecues.

Yet the overall impact of the unseasonably wet weather on the retail sector has been far more nuanced than some would suggest. Just as there are some tents built to cope with monsoon-type conditions, while others start to leak water at the first sign of heavy rain, some parts of the high street weather the weather better than others. For instance, John Lewis has shown its business model to be resilient by delivering sales up by 13 per cent over the 22 weeks to 30 June. Indeed, department stores tend to do better in the damp weather as consumers tend to head to one-stop-shops instead of the beach or park. Both John Lewis and Debenhams have continued to evolve their appeal and appear to have momentum.

By contrast, womenswear sales at Marks & Spencer were stuttering before the bad weather began in April, and the rain-clouds have served only to highlight the wider issues the retail giant faces in its struggle to capture the imagination of women from 30 to 70 years old.

At the more troubled end of the high street, JJB Sports blamed the rain partly for yesterday's profit warning, but it has been effectively crisis-stricken for around four years. French Connection, by contrast, was decent enough not to mention the weather when it posted its third profit warning in seven months in May. Indeed, it is perhaps more surprising that, nearly halfway through an exceptionally soggy summer, there have not been more rain-related profit warnings.

With shoppers in some parts of the country needing boats merely to reach the shops, it's plain that weather is not for retailing wimps. But it helps if chains have the muscle to reduce their chances of going under.