“You do things differently. You make decisions quicker because you have to, then question why you didn’t make them quicker in the past. You take decisions you should have always taken but haven’t done so because there’s been a nice tailwind. You confront things you didn’t want to confront, from business processes to people,” he says.
“You can also be blunt. The basic fact is there is an ever-increasing dole queue and people in the business need to sharpen up. People are grateful they’ve got jobs at the moment because there’s such uncertainty in retail so productivity starts to rise.”
Hitchcock, the former FD at booksellers Ottakars, believes Moss Bros is protected from the economic downturn to an extent. The company has a healthy amount of cash and close to optimal stock balance. He adds: “We’ve got a good management team and, rather perversely in the current climate, people do smarten up. You’ve got to be noticed for the right reasons and that starts with how people see you. The more formal appearance is making a very big comeback. Our suit sales have ticked off quite radically.”
Customers – both old and new – are pleasantly surprised when they step foot inside a Moss Bros store these days, says Hitchcock. “People think they trade down in coming to one of our outlets. The reality is when they come through the door and see the array of brands we stock, they are surprised. There are a lot of positives in our favour.”
As for when the recession will end, Hitchcock believes the first green shoots won’t be seen until the end of the year. “A slight, but not massive, uptick will come in 2010,” he asserts. “The gradient of the economic recovery will be very shallow but you’ll see it in 2010 and beyond.”
The retail sector will be changed by that stage with more retailers – particularly independents – going under before the recovery. Hitchcock claims: “They just won’t have the financial depth and strength to get them through a very difficult year. Banks won’t want to give them any working capital; that frees up market share for the folks like ourselves."
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