High Street in a Cold Climate; COMMENT

Article excerpt

Byline: RUTH SUNDERLAND Associate City Editor

AHIGH Street casualty is an ominous start to the Christmas shopping season. Once a mecca for camping and outdoor enthusiasts, Blacks Leisure warned investors yesterday they are likely to see their equity wiped out.

Chief executive Julia Reynolds, installed in the summer, has been trying to conquer a mountain - a [pounds sterling]36m debt mountain. She was yesterday forced to send out a distress signal, appealing for rescuers to buy the business or its brands.

Blacks has its own particular difficulties.

Its utilitarian stores have a whiff of the 1970s about them. The chain has lost out to trendier outlets catering to the young surf-andsnowboard crowd, as well as facing competition from Amazon and other online operators.

But it is not alone. Electrical retailer Comet is being sold for [pounds sterling]2 to a private investment firm after a collapse in sales.

Even mighty Tesco is finding life tough in the UK grocery market, and its trading update today is expected to show its British supermarkets are merely treading water.

Sports retailer JJB, music outlet HMV and Argos are all struggling, while Focus DIY has gone into administration and the bulk of the Habitat chain has been shut.

The likes of John Lewis, which appeal to prosperous Middle Britain, are holding up well, but weaker retailers are faced with a perfect storm.

Household incomes, as Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King has pointed out, are suffering their worst squeeze for generations. …