Morrisons sales drop: there's work to be done

Like-for-like sales shrink by 1.8 per cent.

In the 13 weeks to 5 May 2013, Morrisons saw total sales rise by 0.6 per cent but like-for-like sales shrink by 1.8 per cent. While Morrisons has experienced an easing in LFL declines during Q1, the grocer’s performance serves to highlight that it has continued to underperform in a highly competitive market. Moreover, while its current strategic focuses are sensible, and have the potential to get Morrisons back on track in the medium-long term, they will inevitably take time to bear fruit.

With the UK food & grocery market increasingly being characterised by falling customer loyalty and low volume growth, which is in turn being met with heavy promotional activity among the main players, Morrisons has been forced to react. To this end, there has been a noticeable sharpening of promotional activity with the grocer building upon investment into innovative campaigns such as Payday Bonus, with the launch of its new Our Pick of the Street campaign – which focuses in particular on fresh products.

Elsewhere, it has been much keener in seeking to communicate its key differentiators. This period saw a greater focus on marketing extolling the virtues of Morrisons’ virtual integration strategy, via the medium of a high profile television campaign featuring family favourites Ant and Dec, complemented by full-page spots in newspapers. The benefits of its sourcing and distribution strategy will have resonated well with consumers amid the horsemeat scandal which has understanding eroded trust in grocery retailers. Indeed, Morrisons was one of the few grocers unaffected by the furore.

This period saw Morrisons make further progress across a number of areas which are key to its long term health. It remains on track to operating 100 M Local by year end having acquired a tranche of outlets from failed retailers such as Blockbuster and Jessops. Morrisons also plans to have implemented its new Fresh food concept across 40 per cent of its portfolio by the end of its financial year; further strengthening its credentials for quality and freshness. However, while it plans to have a full online food & grocery offer for 2014, the specifics remain unclear. Moreover, its high profile discussions with Ocado – which are likely to lead to Ocado providing technological expertise, as well possible use of one of its distribution centres – have yet to yield any results. 

Morrisons continues to be a soundly run retailer and many of its current investments – particularly in relation to online and convenience – are set to leave it significantly better positioned in the medium-to-long term. However, it will continue to face short term challenges as it plays catch up with rivals.  Moreover, while the grocer is displaying greater adeptness in communicating its key points of differentiation, there is still much work to be done around strengthening price perceptions.

Morrisons. Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation