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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR