After a week that saw Marks & Spencer and John Lewis post poor figures, and gloomy predictions in the media suggesting more bad news to follow over the summer, high-street retailers are already reassessing their comms strategies.
'Clarification is key at the moment,' said Gavin Anderson executive chairman, Europe, Fergus Wylie. 'Retailers need to make sure they have a clear identification and differentiation. If performance is down, you have to be absolutely clear why that is.'
M&S saw sales drop 5.3 per cent in the 13 weeks to 28 June, sending shares tumbling by up to 25 per cent.
There was criticism on some fronts that M&S, long lauded for its communication and strong leadership under CEO Stuart Rose, blamed the poor sales on the economy rather than looking at a deeper problem.
'There were clearly management issues here as well,' said one City PR agency MD. 'Blaming the economic climate alone smacks of covering up, when actually a lot more openness is required.'
The John Lewis Partnership saw its value affected as its sales dipped 8.3 per cent in the week to 28 June. In some out-of-town shops the drop was as much as 25 per cent. Out-of-town activity is seen as a good example of consumer spending power - with little free cash, consumers do not travel far to spend it.
'The natural response is to want to shut off the information flow. However, it's important to maintain the same approach to honesty and openness,' said John Lewis head of press & PR Helen Dickinson.
The poor figures reflected across the market, and rivals such as Debenhams have also seen a marked share dip over the past six months.
'Psychologically, in a downturn you want to shut-off communications,' said Wylie. 'But my advice is that is the worst thing that you could do. Your brand has to remain strong.'
THE HIGH STREET SLUMP IN 2008: HOW I SEE IT
Jackie Elliot, CEO, Cathcart Consulting
The high street is struggling. Sir Stuart's desired elevation to the chairmanship of Marks & Spencer has been poorly handled and seems premature in the light of the current difficulties. And the 'John Lewis list' that appears to have kept MPs nicely supplied has somehow, albeit mistakenly, added a touch of sleaze to the nation's cleanest retailer. Even Waitrose, with its patronising new approach to 'what you deserve', has struck the wrong note. At M&S, the fluffy fashion ad campaigns are looking tired and the luxury approach to food seems inappropriate when belts are being tightened. The message 'quality = value for money' rather than 'luxury = aren't you special' must be better expressed by both retailers. They must learn to use the internet more effectively to reach customers and use the more economic discipline of public relations more widely.