Talking to retailers at the recent Convenience Retailing Show (CRS), and on other occasions since, makes me confident that for most neighbourhood stores, things aren't too bad at the moment.

Of course, consumer spending is down and undoubtedly some stores have been badly affected where a big local employer has laid off workers nearby. But, on the whole, independent stores and the wholesalers that supply them have moved quickly to offer more value lines and cut-price promotions to keep the customer traffic as high as possible.

Contrast this responsiveness with those affecting the cost side of the retail equation. So far, those responsible for setting rents, rates and utility bills have shown no sign of even being aware that there is a recession.

Up and down the country boarded-up shops are becoming increasingly commonplace. It's easy to blame it all on the recession, but more often than not it is upward-only rent reviews and excessive business rates that are the final nail for an otherwise healthy business. No wonder business rate rises were identified by visitors to CRS as the number one issue of concern.

Shoppers and retailers have had to adapt to changing market conditions; it's about time landlords, local authorities and other drains on cashflow did the same.


Minimum fuss


Minimum pricing for alcohol has thankfully been dismissed by the Prime Minister almost as soon as it was proposed. Even in Scotland, where problems with alcohol are even higher on the public agenda, there is sufficient opposition to the idea to force a debate. But on both sides of the border, it is fair to say that now the idea of minimum pricing has been raised publicly, it won't be easy to silence.

A couple of things strike me about this. For one, anything other than a tax-based method of creating a minimum price would simply give the largest retailers a treasure chest of margin to create havoc in some other product category - probably fuel.

And second, to have one tax (and age) regime in Scotland and another over the border is only going to create massive distortions in the market. Unless there is an outbreak of common sense soon, you could see an 18-year-old in Berwick-on-Tweed being able to buy large quantities of cheap alcohol, while another down the road in Kelso can only drink in pubs and pay a huge premium for it. Someone's obviously been on the sauce.

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