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Editor's Comment: Election glare spotlights retail’s low-wage culture

Are you suffering from election fatigue yet?

We still have three weeks to go (as I write this), so can only expect the media overload to intensify in the run-up to Thursday, May 7. The lack of a clear winner - and even the make-up of a likely coalition - is making this democratic contest more intriguing than usual. What is usual, however, is the long list of promises, half-promises, good intentions and PR spin that all the contenders are offering the electorate.

I could understand the sentiments expressed by business finance directors in a survey this week that they wanted no change to the policy of “recovery”. Better the devil you know, perhaps, but I have noted before that lots of retail and fashion brand bosses tell me they are not seeing many signs of this celebrated “recovery” turning up in the tills.

Interestingly enough, at present my contacts seem to be split between the views that uncertainty over the result and the aftermath of the election is making consumers hold on to their disposable income and the counter stance that actually it is having no discernible effect. Judging by how many of the public in media interviews state they are not going to vote, perhaps the second view is the more prevalent one. It depends on the consumer group, of course.

Retailing’s less attractive side has been highlighted by all the talk about zero-hours contracts, the minimum wage and the living wage. Next’s leader Lord Wolfson, who could never be accused of shooting recklessly from the lip, made a typically matter-of-fact statement last week that people should be able to live on the minimum wage. My response to the noble lord would be: “Up to a point, Simon.” There is living and there is existing. I doubt that many families can enjoy a fulfilling life on the minimum wage, particularly in London. On Wednesday he announced that any bonus he is due this year would go into the pot to increase Next’s entry-level wage. Is that an admission that it is too low at present?

A twist to the debate has been added by the assertion from community campaign organisation Citizens UK that the low-pay policies of large retailers, including Next, costs the country nearly £11bn because of the amount of financial help the government is obliged to provide through the likes of working tax credits. This assertion has provoked a robust response from retailing chiefs.

The entire discussion is a fascinating and frustrating one. At times it seems as though we are in a hall of mirrors in which every argument is faced by another. Paying workers more seems a good idea, of course, but even allowing for some trimming of profits (which not every retailer would countenance) the effect would be higher prices. And all the evidence suggests that today’s consumers do not want to pay higher prices. In general terms, we are becoming a discount-driven society with everyone looking for - no, expecting - a deal. I noted with interest this week that Poundland announced its annual sales are over £1bn. That’s a lot of shoppers…

Just before Easter, in a universe far from Poundland, Marigay McKee parted company with Saks Fifth Avenue after 15 months as president. The received wisdom is the fit between Harrods’ former chief merchant and the underperforming US store group was not perfect. The effervescent McKee, who has acquired an American fiancé in New York, will not be short of job offers in the luxury sector. I suspect she will have a break and then stay in the US - at least over there she will avoid the media overload on our general election.

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