EVEN the Chancellor has had to admit it – despite his reputation for belligerent optimism. These are hard times for retailers and this is likely to be the stiffest Christmas for stores for at least 12 years. And it could be even worse – with the CBI survey of retailer confidence at it lowest for 22 years.
Yet there are optimistic signs for the Co-operative Movement, with further demonstrations of what the Co-op Group is doing well. For all John Prescott's loyal words of New Labour being a project to place traditional values in a modern setting, it is actually aspects of the Co-op Group's activities where the description can be used most accurately.
Co-op's recognition by the National Consumer Council as the major brand that does most to promote healthy eating is excellent and exactly uses the traditional Co-op values in the modern retailing context.
It is particularly impressive given their different market positions, that the Co-op has outperformed Waitrose and Marks & Spencer at the top of the league. There should be no stinting here of praise for the Group.
But just as encouraging is the announcement that the Co-op Bank is providing the facilities to enable credit unions to offer bank accounts with debit cards for cash withdrawals.
Understandably, the Association of British Credit Unions calls this "a major step change in the development of credit unions in the UK".
At a stroke, credit unions will be much closer to fulfilling the role envisaged for them – in particular, once again, in the context of modern commerce and society.
And this has been made possible because the Co-op Bank has taken an intelligent, friendly and even comradely attitude to another part of the Movement.
As David Anderson, Chief Executive of Co-operative Financial Services, said: "Many people may think that the Co-operative Bank is opening up the market to more competition, but we see credit unions as part of the wider Co-operative Movement and not as competitors." Well said.
It is also likely – and would be fully deserved – if the move further underlines the positive reputation in which the Co-op Bank is held. Let us be blunt, over the last 20 years, the Co-op Bank has been one of the most remarkable and successful commercial turnaround stories in any sector in the UK.
Having been one of the weakest banks it is now one of the strongest, in terms of competence, efficiency, innovation, ethics and competitiveness of products, not to mention 11 consecutive years of record profits.
The signs are that the integration of CIS with the Bank within CFS will provide similar positioning for CIS.
These initiatives must be seen in their wider context, which is that the Co-op Group has also established a strong reputation in the City for the quality of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting.
The Co-op has won several awards for its CSR reports, including CFS's first Sustainability Report, which was ranked number one in the United Nations' Environment Programme's global benchmark of sustainability reporting and rated as ‘Best Sustainability Report 2004' in both Europe and the UK.
The content of the CSR report is just as reassuring as the fact of its existence and its quality. In 2004, the Group invested £ 7.3 million in community projects, equal to 3.2 per cent of pre-tax profits, despite a 26 per cent fall in profits over the period.
The report also showed an effective staff diversity strategy in place, with initiatives covering flexible working, access to goods and services and age discrimination.
There has been progress on ‘ethical retailing', with the Group taking advice from a experts who focus on considerations such as animal testing, food labelling and Fairtrade.
Now, the Co-op Group has won a further accolade in the Corporate Social Responsibility category of Marketing Week magazine's Effectiveness Awards for its support of the Fairtrade brand and concept.
In the citation, the Group was credited with raising general consumer awareness about Fairtrade, "resulting in a dramatic increase in sales and bringing Fairtrade into the mainstream".
In five years, total Co-op sales of Fairtrade products jumped from £ 1.6m to over £ 25m, covering 110 Fairtrade items, encompassing 72 Co-op brands, including all own label chocolate bars and coffees.
Sadly, none of this will ensure that the Co-op Group will benefit from strong Christmas sales. But it does illustrate just how many things the Group is doing right, which will surely benefit both sales and profits as the economy improves.