Martin Flanagan: Devil is in the retail as MPs hear it straight

BRITAIN'S parliamentarians are certainly seeing some exotic business life.

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley gives evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee at Portcullis House, London. Picture: PA

Earlier this week they heard the ebullient retail billionaire Mike Ashley admit management practices at his Sports Direct empire’s Derbyshire warehouse had been found wanting, even if he claimed he could not be expected to know everything in a group that had metamorphosed from “a tiny inflatable” to “an oil tanker”.

Some oil tanker. A Sports Direct worker gave birth in the warehouse lavatory to avoid taking the day off, MPs were told. To nobody’s surprise, least of all fans of Newcastle FC, which he also owns, Ashley said he was “not Father Christmas”. Too many ambulances were also being called by his staff over the past three years.

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Yesterday, MPs were told Dominic Chappell, the businessman who bought BHS for £1 from another billionaire retailer, Sir Philip Green, was “a premier league liar” who had his “fingers in the till”. Former BHS chief executive Darren Topp alleged that Chappell issued a death threat when he questioned him over a £1.5 million transfer of BHS money to Sweden.

“If you kick off about it, I’ll come down there and kill you,” Topp claimed Chappell told him. And next week former BHS owner Green is due to be quizzed by an MP’s select committee about his part in the sorry saga.

Say what you want, the devil is in the retail when the sector makes the journey to Westminster.

Swallows and summer

One swallow doesn’t make a summer. And Sainsbury’s has proved the proverb. Same‑floorspace sales have fallen 0.8 per cent at the supermarket group in its latest trading quarter. The sceptical will think that Sainsbury’s rare positive sales quarter in the previous three months was therefore flattering to deceive in the cut-throat food retailing sector.

But it is probably just a case of a patchy performance from the supermarket giants now becoming something to be expected in a sector trading climate that has been turned upside down by the discounter chains, the internet and changed social food shopping patterns.

We will probably see more of this zig-zag sales pattern from the supermarkets, with modest gains followed by modest setbacks as they try and claw their way to progress.