Bottom Line: Retail can’t promise to learn from mistakes

Elizabeth Fournier
YESTERDAY was a glorious, sunny day in London – clear blue skies with a hint of the crisp spring weather that typifies a British April. Lunching City workers donned light coats and sunglasses, keen to soak up the rays.

But forecasters are already warning that Easter weekend could be a washout – retailers who’ve stocked up on barbecues are likely to be switching displays and hastily slashing their prices on kagouls and umbrellas.

All of which makes Debenhams’ pledge yesterday to avoid heavy promotional discounting sound like something of an empty promise.

It’s all very well to blame mild weather last autumn for no one wanting knitwear and coats, but it’s also difficult to imagine an alternative to the solution that Debenhams used to shift the overstock – unscheduled Blue Cross sales with prices slashed.

As analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald point out, Debenhams’ position in the very middle of the mid-market retailers means it is stuck on a discounting merry-go-round; unable to attract high-end shoppers looking for the newest gear (or an end-of-season bargain), and only tempting bargain hunters when it drives prices way down.

Yet investors seem optimistic. Perhaps they like the fact that Mike Ashley is hanging around, eager to push his Sports Direct brands into the stores – or perhaps they’re genuinely on board with the department store’s plans, belated though they are.

We’re unlikely to know until the next set of results whether Michael Sharp’s masterplan can succeed.

It might not be worth sticking around for.

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