Next has been regarded as the bellwether of the British high street for years, but in 2016 its chief executive, Lord Wolfson, proved almost prophetic. Not only did he accurately predict the extent to which external factors would affect trading, he was also one of the few fashion retailers to publicly back the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Not normally one to seek the limelight, this year Wolfson felt compelled to speak out and make his views on Brexit and business known. In March, he publicly stated his belief that the UK could thrive outside the EU, writing in The Times: “A nation that wants to stand still is a nation in decline.” He also became a welcome voice of reason in the debate. Immediately after the referendum in June, he warned the UK must not “raise the drawbridge” and become protectionist. More recently, he criticised the tone of the debate over the UK’s post-Brexit migration policy.
And it is not just Brexit – delivering the prestigious British Retail Consortium annual lecture in June, he surprised some in the room with the strength of his feeling on issues such as the state of the UK’s planning system.
Politics aside, like so many of its bricks-and-mortar rivals, Next has had its trading ups and downs this year. Total sales were down 3.5% in the third quarter after a subdued August and September. However, full-price trading improved in October as cooler weather set in, and Next maintained its central profit forecast. Next remains the UK’s biggest fashion retailer with a market capitalisation of £7.2bn – dwarfing its nearest rival, Marks & Spencer, valued at £5.3bn. A weak sterling will hurt next year, but Next – which won the Consumer Choice awards at the Drapers Awards 2016 – can weather the storm. Meanwhile, Wolfson has cemented his influence not only on the fashion retail industry, but on the wider business community and beyond.