Mike Ashley’s contempt for the City is impressive. Having dunned the punters for 300p a share on flotation five years ago, his Sports Direct produced horrible results, while ignoring analysts’ demands for useful information. As the price slumped, the company conducted its own version of an end-of-season sale, buying back shares at marked-down prices.

While Ashley was infuriating the analysts, he was destroying the opposition. The result last week was a 9.1% jump in third-quarter sales while much of the rest of Planet Retail has been gasping for growth. The shares have climbed back to 290p. Ashley is clearly a brilliant retailer, but Sports Direct is only an extreme example of the dramatic divide between winners and losers.

The losers are left wondering what happened during the “unexpected and impressive jump in retail sales in January” as Howard Archer at Global Insight put it. The answer is that the shoppers, when they’re not surfing the web, are off to the malls, so retailers need fewer shops to cover the country. The analysts at CBRE calculate that in 1971 a chain needed 200 stores to be within reach of  50% of the population, Today’s figure is half that, and the best centres are increasing their market share. Rather than exhort struggling high streets to reinvent themselves, Mary Portas might do better to admit that there are far too many shops in the UK, and that many would be more valuable as something else. Isn’t there a housing shortage?

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