Outlook: Storehouse gloom

SIR TERENCE Conran was a bitter man when all those years ago he was driven out of Storehouse, the company he had helped to create, complaining loudly that the biggest mistake he ever made was to hire Michael Julien. It wasn't long before Mr Julien was gone too and looking back on it all now, Sir Terence can only reflect on how lucky he is to be running a chain of fashionable restaurants rather than the dead parrot that is today's Storehouse.

It's been downhill for so long now that it's hard to remember the glory days, when Habitat was a retail formula to die for and Sir Terence, flanked by Roger Seelig, revealed his merger with Mothercare to an astonished City. Bhs followed not long after. That was when the men in grey suits took over and it all started to go wrong.

Habitat went ages ago. Keith Edelman, who had attempted and failed to run what remained for cash, went in May. Since then, Alan Smith, the chairman, has been combing the world for someone to take the rest off his hands as well. Unsurprisingly, he has failed too. So now he's down to doing the splits, like so many crisis-torn companies before him. It's worked for some when all else fails. Both ICI and Hanson carried it off with aplomb and it plainly did wonders for the former British Gas. National Power, another basket case, is also hoping it offers salvation.

The scale of the losses and dividend cut announced by Storehouse yesterday amply demonstrate quite how rotten things are for our established high street clothing retailers. Splitting Mothercare from Bhs won't of itself make things better and although Mr Smith offers a very credible strategy for improvement, it is hard as things stand to see why customers should return.

The problems of Bhs and Mothercare are on a lesser scale to those of Marks and Spencer, but they are no less daunting for it. All three need creativity and flair, of the type that Sir Terence once had in spades, to reinvigorate them. Other than through takeover, it's not clear where it is going to come from. The demerger should at least make these chains easier to buy.

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