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In My View by Eric Musgrave: There are more reasons than ever to buy British

Eric Musgrave
12 September 2022

The out-of-control train that is the creaking British economy is giving me lots to think about at present.

Spiralling energy costs seem to have no upper limit and the pathetic excuse for an administration we are stuck with claims it can do nothing. How odd then that the UK’s increases are appreciably higher than any comparable state in the European Union.

It is obvious a hell of a lot of people are going to have a grim time from now until well into 2023. I am genuinely surprised there have not been mass protests about the zombie-like reaction of Johnson and the successive crew of incompetents. Or are demonstrations illegal now? It remains to be seen what Truss & her acolytes will bring that will make any real difference.

I have been wondering how the cost-of-living crisis will affect sales in fashion stores, particularly for my cherished independents. At various trade shows in mid-July – which seems a VERY long time ago now – several owner-drivers complained to me the constant media doom-mongering was putting doubt and worry into consumers’ minds unnecessarily.

That negative tendency of my fellow journos, predictably enough, has only got worse since then, fuelled (no pun intended) by the cost of energy scandal. I wonder if my retail friends have slightly toned down their criticism of the press, TV and radio since the alarming energy price cap was announced in late August.

It may seem ridiculous, but I do feel the independent retailers do have a valid point about scare stories scaring people. As horrible as the winter is going to be for a huge number of our fellow citizens, the truth is many of the UK population are well off and will remain well off despite the increase in utility bills and the cost of filling up the Range Rover or Audi.

Will they keep spending in fashion, however? That is a very pertinent question. How should retailers promote themselves? Just act as if nothing is happening? Do more marketing to engage with their clientele? Hold more in-store events? Drop their prices and sell everything at wholesale plus VAT? (OK, the last one is a joke).  .

One thing I remember from the last severe economic downturn (was it about 15 years ago?) was even people with plenty of cash held on to it as they felt guilty or uncomfortable spending on a new frock or some new jeans while many citizens could not afford adequate food.

I fear this might be repeated in this autumn-winter season and I do not have much idea of what indie retailers can do about it. Maybe a bit of stealth marketing with their best clients might be the best use of their time.

Another concern of my troubled mind is how UK-based manufacturers of textiles, clothing, footwear and accessories are going to ride out the incoming economic maelstrom.

At the end of August I had a very happy day out at the Leicester factory of premium hosiery brand Pantherella, which is part of the H J Hall Group. As I gazed in wonderment at its (to me) bewilderingly complicated knitting machines that these days knit the entire sock, including automatically linking the toe, I wondered what sort of hike in the electricity bills the business was facing.

Even though it uses more energy-efficient steamers for washing and drying the socks these days, Pantherella cannot avoid using a lot of increasingly expensive electricity every one of its five working days a week, running two shifts from 6am to 10pm.

What offers of assistance for the UK manufacturing sector has been offered by the government? What even small acknowledgement of the immense problems ridiculous energy costs will cause was heard from Truss and Sunak as their spouted their nonsense to try and win the approval of about 160,000 mainly comfortably-off old-aged pensioners?

Nothing is the answer to both my questions.

Since she arrived at No 10, our new PM has introduced some measures that she says will save “a typical household” (whatever that is) £1,000 a year. Or, to look at it another way, £2.74 a day.

In a spectacularly vague nod to businesses, a six-month scheme will offer what was termed “equivalent support” to that for households, with a review in three months about how it could be better targeted.

Good luck to any finance director in the manufacturing sector trying to make a forecast based on that.

For the past 20 years I have been an enthusiastic champion for UK manufacturers, not because I believe we will open new factories but rather because I am desperate to maintain the ones we have. I want to keep the thousands of jobs that exist within the British textile, clothing, footwear and accessories sectors.

Pantherella produces about 1.5 million pairs of high-quality socks each year and employs around 30 people on the factory floor and warehouse at its building which occupies one entire side of Hallaton Street, Leicester. I would like to see those people and others like them employed for many years to come.

As crazy as the suggestion seems in the current economic car crash, I would like UK-based buyers to look more carefully and closely at what Made-in-UK products they could source. Independent retailers and better-end departments store are the types of stores attracting consumers whose first priority is not price. They should be the ones who want to benefit the UK economy by buying domestically where they can.

They should also look at the creative possibilities of Made-in-Britain products and not just top up on locally-made basics.

Pantherella, for example, produces an amazing 1,200 SKUs across different yarns, sizes, leg lengths and designs but too often, I suspect, British stockists rarely look beyond the black and navy shades.

I cannot believe the correct response now for an upper-middle or a premium-level retailer is to start to drop prices. Do they think they will undercut Primark?

I hope despite the upcoming storm they will stick to their values – and add some more premium British manufacturers and brands to their mix.

Politicians say it often but unlike them I really mean it – in the fashion industry we are all in this together.

Good luck to everyone for the autumn-winter season and beyond.

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