Outlook: Next success story starts to wear thin

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The Independent Online
THE higher they fly, the harder they fall. Such is the fate of Next, whose reputation as the retail success story of the decade this morning has a bit of a rip in the yarn.

The City was so accustomed to the relentless outperformance of this company that everyone had started to believe it was invincible. Perhaps the company's fashion buyers had started to believe it too. At any rate, they took their eye off the ball last year, first ordering clothes that were too trendy and expensive, then going all cautious and leaving the shops short of stock. This may have had something to do with the fact that the company's head of women's wear buying was absent for a prolonged period after a riding accident. Whatever the cause, some irrational exuberance was followed in short order by a wave of unwarranted conservatism.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Next's problems is that they hadn't happened before. Next has enjoyed 14 consecutive seasons of successful buying, which is about as good as it gets given the vagaries of fashion. The real let-down was in the group's checking procedures which failed to recognise an imbalance in the women's and children's ranges.

The good news for Next is that it knows what the problems are and can now set about correcting them. The only unknown is whether the confidence of Next's buyers may have been affected. The other element to this story for the superstitiously minded is that it tops off a run of bad luck for Lord Wolfson, who is stepping down as chairman in May. Up until recently, he could do no wrong as far as the City was concerned and no doubt he was hoping to go out, basking in the glow of a share price that had risen by a factor of 64 between 1991 and last month. Now he is bowing out on a profits warning. Meanwhile, with his GUS hat on, his bid for Metromail, an American database company, has become mired in legal difficulties, his pounds 1.6bn offer for Argos, which had looked like a foregone conclusion, now seems more finely balanced. As any general will tell you, nobody fights on three fronts and wins. No wonder he was looking a little tired yesterday.

With the premium on Next shares gone and with his departure from the company looming, perhaps he will now act on one of the stock market's favourite takeover rumours. Maybe, just maybe, he will dump Argos and launch a bid for Next instead.