Simon English: Argos catalogue will one day be history as nice guy Duddy sees the future


As a comedian, Michael McIntyre sucks. But perhaps he'd make a half-decent retail analyst.One of his rare good jokes: "Argos is the store that said 'all shops should be like us' and all the other shops said 'no'."

That's about right.

Argos was always an oddity – a place where you couldn't see what you were buying, but were supposedly entranced by its shiny, laminated catalogue pages and the nubby pencils. It worked for a long while, before some twerp invented the internet and ruined everyone's life.

You can't see what you are buying on the internet either, but you don't have to leave the house to make a purchase, which an irritating number of people seem to like.

Yesterday Terry Duddy, the chief executive of Argos' parent group Home Retail, finally admitted that an overhaul was needed.

He's embraced the internet. Visiting Argos in future will be an "experience" (it already was).

So he'll shut a bunch of stores he should have binned years ago and hint that the catalogue is one day going to be history (it's a matter of time, plainly).

Mr Duddy is a nice guy, one of those chief executives that can take a joke at his own expense and give the same back.

So he won't mind you noting that Next, perhaps the best-run retailer in Britain, did similar things long ago. The Next Directory still exists, but its customers are online, mostly.

This internet thing may have a bright future. Argos needs to catch up awfully quickly for hope of the same.

The numbers won't add up – but it doesn't matter

Exciting news due: the UK is out of recession! Probably. That's what the latest GDP numbers are expected to show this morning, though the predictors (City economists) have a track record that does not entirely inspire confidence.

The figures, whatever they are, will attract much attention. The point to keep in mind here is this: they are probably wrong, and they don't matter anyway.

If they are good, that's just because there's an artificial bounce from the Jubilee and the Olympic Games. If the numbers are bad, that's because the authorities can't really properly measure what they are claiming to measure. They'll be revising them for years to come.

Our obsession with these figures may be understandable, but that's not the same as being rational.

Only China produces GDP numbers quicker than Britain does. No one believes China's figures.

When you're in a hole, stop borrowing

What's the correct level of debt for individuals to carry?

I ask it because no one else does. We have a debate about the "correct" levels of taxation, the correct levels of wine consumption, and the correct levels of cholesterol.

Debt we tend to discuss only in terms of how much we can borrow. Are those mean banks lending properly, or are they hoarding it for themselves?

When it comes to buying houses, it remains the case that folk with an apparently steady income are allowed to borrow absurd amounts of money on the assumption that their income will never go down and that the value of the house will only increase. Both assumptions are as deeply questionable as they have ever been.

Yet the talk from government is about how to get banks lending more. The Bank of England's Funding for Lending scheme is aimed at getting banks to lend more and more often to firms and individuals. The ratio of debt to personal income is already high. How would we get out of our present mire by getting people to borrow more?

Dyson's vision was a clear-sighted call

Ian Dyson called it right and early. The former finance director of Marks & Spencer rocked up at Punch Taverns a while ago with a vision. Inside this struggling concern were actually two businesses, he decided, one with an obvious future and one that may need some tough love, may need setting free and left to sink or swim on its own.

So the Spirit arm of quality pubs run by the company was split off and floated separately, and now seems to be thriving under new management.

The bulk of the old Punch Taverns, burdened with massive debts and run by individual landlords of variable ability, was also spun off and told to shape up. It had some assets of clear value, but it needed to reinvent itself, said Mr Dyson.

Yesterday, chief executive Roger Whiteside said that his £2bn of debts need to be "restructured" again, but thinks that there is hope yet. In the meantime, everyone who works for both businesses is much happier to at least have a discernible direction of travel.

Mr Dyson lost his job as a result of the shake-up he engineered. However, there must surely be many other companies where his obvious business skills would be better appreciated.

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