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Retailers are more optimistic than they let on

Michael Weedon, Deputy chief executive, British Independent Retailers Association (Bira).

Michael Weedon

Michael Weedon

Oh, it’s been alright…” is the most effusive that retailers get when asked how trade has been. Their tills could be overflowing with gold, their card terminals melting down through overuse and their websites crashing through an excess of traffic, but never will they greet that question with a broad smile and the word “fabulous”. So asking them to predict how the year ahead will work out can be a bit of a difficult exercise.

Nevertheless, retailers give themselves away if you ask different questions. So you can establish what they are really feeling, and what they are feeling looks a lot more optimistic than what they are saying.

For one thing, the numbers that rule the lives of all businessmen and women have been looking a tiny little bit happier of late.

Regular surveying among the Fashion Association of Britain (FAB) and British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) members has shown a gentle, slightly wobbly curve of turnover growth.

The results from indies for clothing and footwear have shown a recovery from horribly negative figures in the first quarter of last year, to merely slightly negative numbers by the last quarter.

Fashion, like the whole non-food half of the UK retail universe, is still seeing gently falling prices - real deflation - while the food half is still rising. So, any non-food business selling the same number of items like-for-like as the year before is probably logging falling turnover.

Where this improvement is showing up is in the Bira Optimism Index. In particularly gloomy times, this is renamed the Anxiety Index, but right now indies are telling us they are more optimistic than at any time since the crash. One in 12 are very confident about the year ahead, more than half are reasonably confident and only a third are slightly more sceptical.

These results might indicate a return to something like positivity in 2014. Retailers are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs are natural optimists - you have to be to run a business - but I still don’t expect them to say much more than: “Oh, it’s been alright.”

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