The high street is getting clobbered for having too much clobber

My Week

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The Independent Online

How tough is it this Christmas on the high street? Very, judging by my walk along London's Oxford Street.

Britain’s prime shopping street was a sea of red, as the windows of virtually every store were offering heavy discounts. Three categories were promising bargains: knitwear, outerwear and party dresses.

I say virtually because two chains stood out as not carrying “sale” signs: Zara and Next. Everyone else was trying to shift seasonal stock. Even John Lewis, once a stickler for not starting its sale until after Christmas, had succumbed. Most were saying “30 per cent off” selected items. H&M, though, was advertising 60 per cent.

Everywhere, there were signs of too much clobber. The unusually warm autumn has played havoc with their best-laid plans. Two heavy sufferers, in particular, appeared to be Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.

The latter is cutting prices on different ranges every day, so one day is knitwear, another is coats, and so on. What’s striking about the M&S move, however, is that it only applies to purchases in-store. The small print makes clear that online is not included. This strikes me as perverse: that M&S should be offering two different price points for in-store and digital. One explanation may be that the retailer doesn’t have any faith in its internet service to deliver, having run into well-publicised problems trying to cope with Black Friday.

These, don’t forget, are the reductions now, before Christmas. Afterwards, with more items included, promises to be an even greater bonanza than normal.

Salmond’s sub deal could keep Barrow afloat

On a trip back to my home town of Barrow-in-Furness to present the prizes at the Sixth Form College, I get talking to two local dignitaries. We discuss how the Cumbrian seaside industrial town can enjoy a prosperous economic future. The only way, I submit, is by playing to its strengths – namely the expertise gained from building nuclear submarines.

Attempts to turn Barrow into something else, to develop its docks as a marina and berth for cruise ships for example, are destined to fail. It should avoid the fate that has beset so much of Britain by turning its back on what it does best and trying to reinvent itself – the result is an ersatz nation of industrial heritage sites and spruced up but largely non-wealth-creating former factories, mills and docklands turned bijou apartment projects. 

A cluster is what Barrow should be aiming for, clusters of start-up enterprises, of advanced manufacturing and tech companies spawned by nuclear engineering and the construction of submarines. As we chat, an idea forms: that Barrow should bid to become the base for Trident if the Scottish Nationalists stick to their long-held pledge to force the Westminster government to close Faslane on the Clyde.

The symmetry, between the place that builds the submarines, and the centre that houses them, is natural. Barrow, in the shape of BAe Systems that runs the shipyard, and the docks, already possesses most of the facilities required. The boost for the local economy would be enormous. And the population, which is already used to dealing with things nuclear and has Sellafield just up the coast, would be unlikely to protest.

It all makes for a perfect fit. If Alex Salmond maintains his promise that he will use Faslane as a bargaining chip to secure a deal in the post-general election fallout, Barrow should pounce.

My past caught up with me – at Sotheby’s

At the prize-giving, the devotion and energy of the staff are obvious. So too is the sense of community between pupils, teachers and parents. Resources are tight but the determination to succeed, to turn out leavers who are capable of doing pretty much whatever they want to do is profound.

I begin my speech by saying that 40 years ago I sat in a similar hall and received a prize from a man who was also bespectacled, balding and overweight. I hadn’t got a clue as to who he was, either.

Among the tips I passed on was to own up to your mistakes, don’t run away from them. I related the tale of how I once was at a reception at Sotheby’s, in a group with the auction house’s chairman. I was aware of a woman hovering on the edge of us, and thought I vaguely recognised her. When there was a lull in the conversation she stepped forward. “Chris Blackhurst, you don’t remember me, but I can never forget you – you were once sick in my bike basket.”

It was true. I was taken ill after an alcohol-heavy and food-light party at university, and on the way home there had been a wicker depository handily placed at just the right height. Being the shameful coward I am, I did not have the courage to own up, to apologise and to compensate her. I duly got my comeuppance in front of the great and good at Sotheby’s, and deservedly so.

A bumper year for bumper consolidations

The week ends with news of a bid for Aer Lingus by IAG. For the past few months, bankers and other City types who make their living out of advising the major companies have had a spring in their step.

There were large deals in the pipeline, is all they would say. Watch this space. Clearly, with Aviva going for Friends, BT wanting to buy EE, and Qatar and Brookfield chasing Songbird, owner of Canary Wharf, and now IAG and Aer Lingus, they weren’t joking.

Putting aside property plays such as Canary Wharf, the main driver appears to be the desire for consolidation. Companies want scale to compete globally, opportunities for further meaningful growth in the UK have become more restricted and they’re sitting on plenty of cash.

Financial services, supermarkets and telecoms are just three sectors where the number of players will reduce. Pharmaceuticals is another. This is just the beginning of a reshaping of several of our industries. Expect more of the same in 2015. Merry Christmas and happy new year.

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