Forget fighting on the forecourts, empty supermarket shelves, and looming blackouts. When Next boss Simon Wolfson is worried, that’s the time to panic about the state of the country.
Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise usually oozes calm, a result no doubt of having guided the chain through numerous economic shocks including the dotcom boom; 9/11; and the financial crash.
Even during Covid, Next refused to take fright. The retailer has survived thanks to Wolfson’s brilliant planning. Like a navy general, he is constantly wargaming to prepare Next for the worst.
His “long view” of retail, which included a 15-year stress-test of the retailer’s prospects, would put most top economists to shame. The company’s coronavirus impact assessment, produced at the start of the pandemic, was equally authoritative.
It is this level of forensic analysis that reassured shareholders that Next would quickly rebound from repeated lockdowns and disruption. Having crashed to just under £34 in April 2020, as Covid swept across the country, shares in Next are at record highs of nearly £84 helped by another period of better-than-expected results.
Profit forecasts have been upped for the fourth time this year after turnover rose 5pc to £2.1bn and profits by 8.5pc to £290m. So when someone with Wolfson’s sage-like foresight sounds the alarm it pays to listen.
It’s not that he has suddenly uncovered a raft of new problems that threaten to add to the chaos, though some are increasingly weighing on performance. Price inflation is expected to hit 2.5pc and will “rumble on through most of next year”, suggesting it may not be as transitory as the Bank of England hopes.
Staffing is a bigger concern. Labour shortages are beginning to affect its warehouse and logistics operations, threatening service levels over Christmas. But it is Wolfson’s damning assessment of the ministerial response that is really striking.
As he points out, the HGV crisis was not only “foreseen”, it was building for months and we are now living with the consequences: a skills crisis in warehouses, restaurants, hotels, care homes, and many seasonal industries.
It shouldn’t take a retail figure like Wolfson to point that out, nor how to solve it – by relaxing immigration rules, not wage increases – “a demand-led approach to ensuring the country has the skills it needs”, as he puts it.
But what are the hundreds of mandarins in the Treasury and the Department for Transport doing with their time that prevented them from seeing this coming too?
Ditto those who missed the energy crunch coming, a third lockdown that ruined Christmas, and last year’s exams fiasco. This crippling inaction is becoming an overwhelming feature of Boris Johnson’s government.