High Street Blues

23 12 2008

BRITAIN-BUSINESS-RETAIL-SALESThe trading that occurs in the run up to Christmas is very crucial to retailers even in the “normal” years. It allows them to make up for the losses they might have incurred over the year and helps them prepare financially for the coming year. 2008 has been, by any standards, anything but a normal year. Huge banks have become small banks, some have been swallowed up by bigger banks, some have merged with other banks while some have disappeared altogether.

Little surprise then that the past few weeks have been really tense for the retailers. The number of shoppers visiting the shops have decreased. As a result, retailers have been forced to cut their prices to attract shoppers. According to Experian, the number of shoppers during the weekend, the last weekend before Christmas, was down by 8.7% as compared to last year. However, the number of shoppers yesterday were up 13.6% as compared to the same Monday last year.

It’s a bit unfair to compare the two corresponding Mondays because last year the Monday was Christmas Eve. The kind of shoppers who go shopping on Christmas Eve are generally those looking for food items or ingredients for their Christmas dinner, last minute shoppers or those looking for last minute bargains.

Even though the number of shoppers increased, it still remains to be seen how much revenue that translates into. The main reason why more consumers went out to shop perhaps has a lot to do with a last minute heavy discounts by retailers in desperate attempt to attract shoppers. According to the accountants Ernst & Young, the average discounts were 40%, up from 38% last year. It means that even though people had more shopping bags in their hands, the retailers wouldn’t have made a lot of money from that.

Although the high street is seeing a decline in the number of shoppers, according to Hitwise, the number of people visiting the websites of high street retailers has increased. Between Dec 18 and Dec 21, traffic to online retailers(including internet-only and high street) increased by 2.2% on average as compared to last year. Websites of high street retailers saw their traffic increase by 2.7% on Saturday and 5.9% on Sunday as compared to last year.

When it comes to prices, mostly the online retailers clearly have an advantage over their high street rivals. But their biggest drawback is that the items have to ordered before a certain date to ensure that they are delivered in time for Christmas. On the other hand, the websites of high retailers allow the shoppers to book their products online and pick them up instore. It may not be cheaper than the internet-only retailers, but it certainly is more convenient. One of the put-offs of shopping on the high street before Christmas is clearly having to navigate through crowded streets and aisles holding your shopping bags. It is also very hard to compare prices across different retailers and browse the items leisurely.

The rise in the number of shoppers will definately be of some relief to retailers. But it will by no means make up for the dismal sales and revenues they have generated over the past few weeks. Woolworths and MFI have gone bankrupt and Whittard of Chelsea is said to be on the brink of administration. And it is clear that more will have the same fate in the new year, what remains to be seen is who they will be.

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Sales rise amidst the credit crunch

19 12 2008
Oxford Street, London

Oxford Street, London

According to figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the volume of sales between September and November rose by 0.5% as compared to the three months before it. This may not sound good, but compared to all the doom and gloom and the difficulty of obtaining credit, it does sound good. Also, the value of weekly sales in November were 2.9% higher than in November last year.

However, the high street retailers beg to differ with the figures. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that the figures released by the ONS were optimistic and painted a “rosy picture” of the current difficulties. According to BRC’s own findings, the sales value actually fell by 0.4%. Experian reported that the footfall (the amount of traffic generated by shoppers visiting the stores) in stores for the first three days of the week had decreased by 11.5% compared to last year.

It seems hard to believe that the increase in the volume in sales could have lead to a increase in the value of sales. After all, the increase in the volume of sales is largely due to a wave of heavy discounting by the high street retailers, especially after Woolworths slashed its prices to get rid of its stock. It is likely that the spectacular and well-publicised offers by retailers would have made some reluctant consumers go out and spend. It is also equally likely that many who generally would have waited for Boxing Day sales have instead done their shopping before Christmas since they feel that the discounts offer good value for money. After all, there is a limit to the amount of discounts that the retailers can offer before it starts eroding their profits. So many consumers may feel that the discounts are as good as they are going to get. If this is true, what would happen is that the average amount of sales during the Christmas period hasn’t really increased, but the shopping has been concentrated to a few weeks before Christmas.

The reason for this difference in figures, according to Reuters, is that the figures of “the ONS figures capture internet shopping more fully”. According to the ONS, the value of online sales was £220 million in November and it accounted for 3.8% of the total retail revenues. According to Experian, its company Hitwise which is an online competitive intelligence service, found that the websites of high street retailers had 22% more visits than its internet-only rivals. This could explain why the sales have increased even though the number of shoppers visiting the stores seem to have decreased.

Many shoppers percieve the prices of online retailers to be cheaper than their high street counterparts. And this has been shown to be true in most cases. After all, they do not have to worry about expensive overhead costs like rent and sales staff. However, many shops on the high street nowadays allow their customers to haggle and bag bargains, and this is not available to online shoppers.

It would be interesting to see the figures of  the overall retail sales before and after Christmas since that would allow us to see the whole picture.
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Inflation? Worry about Deflation instead.

16 12 2008
John Lewis , Oxford St., London

John Lewis , Oxford St., London

It was announced today that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) fell by 0.4% from 4.5% in October to 4.1% in November. The CPI is the official measure of inflation used by the Government. The biggest factor for this fall is being attributed to the fall in crude oil prices. The average price of petrol was 95.2p. On the other hand, prices of fresh fruit and vegetables and non-alcoholic beverages is said to have risen compared to last year.

Although the drop is good news, the rate of inflation is still twice the official target of 2%. So, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the Government explaining why the rate of inflation had not hit the target. The governor of the Bank of England is required to write a letter to the Government whenever the rate of inflation is either 1% above or below the target and explain the possible action the BoE might take to solve it. However, Mervyn King feels that the next time he has to write a letter to the Government, it may not be about the reasons for inflation, but deflation instead.

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What are Inflation and Deflation?

Inflation is regarded to be a bad thing since it means a rise in prices, which is a bad thing for shoppers. Then, deflation must be a good thing, right? In the short term, yes it is. In the long term though, its a dreadful thing. To understand why a drop in prices is such a bad thing, one has to understand the meaning of the terms “inflation” and “deflation” and its causes. Inflation is the general increase in prices or, it is the decrease in the purchasing power of money. There are two possible causes; either the cost of production has increased, like the cost of raw materials or labour, or demand is out stripping supply. Take for example a rise in price of a NintendoWii games console. This may be due to a rise in the cost of materials and parts and workers who produce it. Or it could be that the number of units available is less than the number of people wanting to buy it, so the price goes up. Around Christmas, it is likely for the latter to be true. It wouldn’t be unusual around this time to find a NintendoWii on eBay at twice its retail price.

Deflation is the persistent decrease in prices. This happens when supply outstrips demand which could happen due to a surge in productivity. Or, like in the current climate, consumers rein in their spending which means that shops have to cut prices to entice customers to spend. If this happens a couple of times, it creates an anticipation of further cuts in the future. So, although consumers may have the purchasing power, they postpone certain purchases since they would be cheaper in the future. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy where consumers postpone their spending thinking that there would be price cuts, and sure enough, shops cut the prices to persuade shoppers to loosen their purse strings. Good news for shoppers, bad news for businesses. Businesses experience cash flow problems and their staff would have to accept a pay cut or even lose their jobs. So, debt becomes expensive because one owes the same amount of money, but has less income to meet it. Signs of deflation can already be seen on the high-street. Retailers are offering massive discounts, the likes of which are usually seen after Christmas, because they are desperate to clear their stock. And the consumers know this and know that further discounts will follow eventually.

It will be interesting to see how Mervyn King and the Government will go about coaxing the shoppers to spend their money.

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Cool to be Frugal

12 12 2008

piggy-bankAccording to Andy Bond, the Chief Executive of ASDA, its now becoming cool to be frugal and not so cool to be frivolous and wasteful. He feels that consumer’s shopping habits are changing and a new generation of shoppers who are thrifty are emerging as the credit crunch begins to bite even further.

So what does this really mean? It means that consumers will now focus more on products that offer them value for money and will aim to eliminate waste. Value for money doesn’t really mean something that is priced less or discounted. It is actually something that offers satisfaction and quality for its price. Consumers will increasingly try to differentiate their “needs” from their “wants” and think carefully if they really need something or do they just want it. For example, ASDA noted that consumers are beginning to shift from buying ready meals to buying ingredients and cooking at home. People are also beginning to mend or fix items rather than getting rid of them and buying new ones. Cobblers, for example, have seen their business increase since consumers are coming in to get their shoes mended rather than splashing out on a new pair. A quick search on Google Trends showed that visits to the comparison site moneysupermarket.com and myvouchercodes.co.uk which lists voucher codes across a variety of stores had more than doubled.

What’s really interesting is the 40% increase in the number of people who are ignoring best-before dates and consuming the product rather than throwing it in the bin once it is past its sell by date. Perhaps the increase has also something to do with the numerous reports on saving money on television featuring people who regularly consume food, as long as it looks fit, well past the best before date. Consumers are also freezing leftover food rather than wasting it and sales of bottled water and smoothies has also been said to have decreased since many are opting to fill tap water and eat fresh fruit instead.

It is important then that retailers spot this trend and adjust their business models accordingly in order to survive the downturn. Thrifty consumers would focus on long term value and would be willing to spend a little bit extra on an item that is likely to last longer than buy something cheaper in price which would also be cheaper in quality and hence not last as long. Rather than reducing prices on cheap Christmas stocking fillers that perhaps wont even last till next Christmas, retailers should instead focus on reducing prices on items that actually are of some use to the consumers. Also, thrifty consumers are less likely to buy items on impulse which retailers greatly depend on. So, businesses should make sure that they are really operating on a low cost model which aims to eliminate waste as that would be the only way that they would be able to offer low prices and good service at the same time.

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Woolworths goes into administration

28 11 2008
woolworthsThe high street retailer Woolworths, fondly known as Woolies, has been forced to go into administration after it failed to find a buyer to snap it up for a nominal £1. So, why didn’t anybody buy it, surely £1 for a whole company seems like a bargain? That’s because the buyer would have not only acquired Woolworth’s assets (things it owns), but also its huge liabilities (money it owes), £385 million to be exact.

So, what is administration and when does a business go into administration? With regards to business, it is when a business doesn’t have enough funds to trade, also known a cash flow crisis. Cash flow is not the same as profitability of a business, but refers to the cash flowing into and out of the business. If cash coming in is less than the cash going out, then the cash flow is negative and it means that the business does not have enough funds to meet the current liabilities, like creditors and suppliers.

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However, going into administration isn’t still the end of the story for Woolworths. In fact, administrators, in this case the accountancy firm Deloitte, protect the company from creditors seizing stock to pay off the money that is owed to them. The administrators are trying to find a buyer for Woolworths, failing which it will be forced to go into liquidation. This is where the administrators try to sell off the assets to recover any money they can to pay off the debts. Woolworths competitors are dreading this because although it will mean less competition in the long term, since there is one less player in the market, in the short term, it will mean a price war during Christmas as the administrators will slash prices to sell off all the stock.

So, is the reason for Woolworth’s difficulties due to the credit crunch? Well, the increase in household bills has meant that consumers are spending less. This is evident from the fact that Woolworth’s like-for-like sales have decreased whereas their costs have increased leading to increased losses. Many analysts say that Woolworth’s difficulties should come as no surprise, as Woolworths didn’t have a clear brand image, what its brand stood for, and its purpose in the market. Additionally, suppliers of Woolworths found it expensive to insure themselves against the risk that it wouldn’t be able to pay them and hence, Woolworths had to pay upfront for the supplies, unable to take advantage of buying on credit that some of its competitors enjoy.

Woolworths has around 815 stores and employs around 30,000 employees. If the business does go into liquidation, all these employees stand to lose their jobs. Also, the businesses that supply to Woolworths will also suffer losses. The question many people are asking is why isn’t the Government bailing Woolworths out, after all, it did bail out the banks. Well, the Government can’t bailout every business in difficulty; it’s a natural business process where the one with the weakest business model fails hence making the others stronger due to decreased competition.

Other than its retail business, Woolworths Plc. also owns Entertainment UK and 2Entertain. Entertainment UK specialises in the supply of CDs and DVDs to retailers such as Tesco, Zavvi, W H Smith, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and of course Woolworths itself. EUK is said to be a profitable business and the administrators are looking for a buyer for it as well. If EUK is shut down, it will no doubt affect the retailers it supplies, especially during the crucial trading period of Christmas. BBC Worldwide and Woolworths Plc., on the other hand jointly own 2Entertain, and there are talks of BBC Worldwide buying Woolworth’s share of the business.
It has also been reported that MFI is also going into administration, and it looks like a few more will follow, certainly after Christmas. If you want to see Woolworth’s Interim report for 2008, click here.





First the Chancellor giveth, then the Chancellor taketh away.

25 11 2008

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling

Yesterday, the Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in his Pre-Budget Report the much talked about 2.5% cut in the VAT, bringing it down to 15% from 17.5%. In the same breath, he also announced an increase in income tax for those earning £140,000 and above. From April 2011, people falling into this income bracket will have to pay income tax at the rate of 45p.

The cut in VAT is to come into effect from the 1st of December. This leaves ample time for businesses to revise their prices and change the all the labels in the stores, but at the same time, being just in time before the Christmas shopping.

So, how will the change affect the prices? Will a loaf of bread or a bunch of carrots be any cheaper? No, because food products do not attract VAT. Surely, utility bills as a result will go down. Sadly, no because the VAT on utilities such as gas and electricity already have a lower rate of VAT charged at 5%. A cut of 2.5% doesn’t look as if it will make a huge difference in prices, especially compared to the generous 20%, 35%, 40% discounts offered by the retailers already.

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Then, the motive behind the cut is to give confidence to the consumers to go out and spend. But, confidence cannot be used to pay for a brand new PlayStation 3, can it? You need something else, namely, money. The primary reason why people are spending less money on the high street is because they have very little surplus left over after paying the high utility and food bills. And those who have enough surplus choose to save it for a rainy day.

That’s because it’s almost impossible to see a news report nowadays without it mentioning yet another company announcing job cuts. This creates uncertainty among those who are employed about the security of their jobs. Those who have recently been made redundant have no choice but to save money. But those who have a job also save since they don’t know how they are going to put food on the table next month or meet their mortgage repayments.

Another thing that’s hard to miss in a news report is an interview with the boss of a SME (Small & Medium Enterprise) business who has been denied a loan from his bank, or has had his overdraft facility cancelled. This leads to cash flow problems which means the business cant pay its staff, pay its utility bills, or even buy raw materials to maintain production. In addition, creditors, who owe money to the business, are unable or reluctant to part with their money. As a result, staff numbers have to be cut down adding to the number of unemployed across the country.

How can such news create confidence?

Perhaps, the Chancellor should look at reducing the VAT temporarily on utilities, or even get rid of them for the time being. More importantly perhaps, he should make sure that SMEs, who are perfectly healthy, should have access to loans and overdrafts at a reasonable cost to maintain their cash flow. After all, the SMEs are not asking for charity, just for funds which they are prepared to pay back with due interest. It makes sense for the Government to ensure that businesses that are perfectly sound to not go bankrupt just because they do not have enough cash or credit to meet their current liabilities. After all, the SMEs employ a lot of people in the private sector of the economy and contribute to the Treasury in the form of National Insurance and Corporation Tax. Since people are employed, it saves the Government the trouble of have to pay job seekers allowance, hence reducing its outflow.

So, it is perhaps job security and income security that will encourage the consumers to go out and spend, as Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown along with countless retailers are eagerly hoping, fingers crossed.

But it seems highly unlikely that the cut in VAT will have the intended purpose of instilling confidence among the consumers and going on a spending spree, but for the sake of the economy and the countless people who are unemployed, lets hope its not all in vain. The high earners are certainly hoping for it, since they are going to be paying for it, come 2011.

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Spend, Spend, Spend

19 11 2008
christmas-shoppingAccording to recent figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the value of total UK sales as of October 2008 were down 2.2% on a like-for-like basis as compared to last year. Food and Drink was the only sector to have shown an increase in sales. Consumers are cutting back and postponing purchases that are not needed and focusing on the wants instead. Buying patterns are changing as well since many now prefer to cook at home from scratch and are focusing on products that offer them value for money and are actually actively seeking out promotions, discounts and offers.

This is bad news for retailers who are desperately depending on Christmas sales this year more than ever. No wonder then that for many high street retailers, Christmas has indeed come early this year. Discounts and promotions which are normally seen after Christmas are beginning to make their way into stores at a high street near you- five weeks before Christmas.

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Leading the way is Debenhams, who is having a “spectacular” three-day sale, starting today, where many of the products are going to be 20-25% cheaper. But its Marks & Spencer who is receiving the most attention and media coverage for its “20 % off” sale for only one day-tomorrow. Other high street retailers are likely to join the battle to fight for every penny of the consumer’s disposable income this season. In the coming weeks leading up to Christmas, more and more such promotions will come out to entice people to come in and spend their money.

But, as Gillian Lacey-Solymar pointed out on BBC’s Working Lunch, these promotions are likely to happen on weekdays. This is because the promotions are meant to draw people into the stores, which they do anyways on weekends, and so there is no point offering them heavy discounts then if they are likely to settle for less.

It is highly unlikely that these promotions will have a huge impact since people will only buy it if they perceive it as value for money and more importantly, if it is on the top of their priority list. The truth is, people are still being squeezed by rising utility prices and high food prices. Also, almost every other day a well known business announces job cuts which is likely to make those still in employment worry about their security and hence, save every penny they can.

Undoubtedly, all these promotions are good for the consumers. But, offering such huge discount means that retailers are effectively cutting their profit margins, or sometimes even making a loss just to shift their stock. What this means is that in the long term, many retailers will not be able to sustain themselves and it will not be financially viable for them to operate any longer, and hence will go bust.

So what? Well, this would result in job losses, numerous suppliers losing their orders and so on. When the economy does recover, it will mean one less competitor in the marketplace and hence, less competitive prices.

So, in the short term, the promotions are good for the consumers, in the long term however, maybe not.

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