Robust sales for Waitrose and John Lewis

In the half year, Waitrose saw sales rise by 7.8 per cent while John Lewis sales rose by 6.6 per cent.

A very robust set of results from the Partnership are tempered only by the fact profit, on a before tax basis, was down some £42.9m to £68.5m; something that will, ultimately, impact on next year’s bonus pot. However, given that this fall was the result of exceptional items (mostly an adjustment due to changes in holiday pay policy), while disappointing it is not indicative of the underlying performance of the business. Indeed, when exceptional items are stripped out, the Partnership’s profit increased by 3.9 per cent or £4.4m.

Profit aside, the sales numbers clearly demonstrate that despite its good run of growth, the Partnership remains firmly on the front foot with both sides of its business notching up very strong performances.

In our view, the biggest single weapon in the Partnership’s armoury remains its ability to take a long term view of the market and invest appropriately in areas that it sees as delivering future value. This is certainly a function of the freedom which comes from being an employee owned, rather than a public, company. It is also, however, down to the culture and attitude of the business and its management which have, over the past 5 or so years, injected a real sense of pace and purpose throughout the organisation.

John Lewis

Off the back of a strong set of comparatives John Lewis has maintained its momentum and confirmed that it remains one of the success stories of British retail. While recent years have seen sales propelled by a strong programme of new store openings, the latest like-for-like figures – which significantly outstrip those of total UK retail – underline the fact that investments in stores, systems and assortments are all helping to drive growth across the business.

Despite its performance, John Lewis remains paranoid about becoming complacent which has helped to foster culture of energetic self-appraisal and reinvention. This, in a market which is rapidly shifting and reshaping, is one of the keys to its continued success. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to say that John Lewis is firmly in the vanguard of innovative and forward thinking retailers.

The practical implication of all this is that, to consumers, the offer, service and proposition are perhaps more relevant today than they have ever been. For example, in fashion John Lewis has been quick to respond to the flight to quality with brands such as Alice Temperly and John Lewis & Co – both of which have a strong appeal to clearly defined target audiences. Equally, John Lewis has been responsive to the greater demand for personalisation and customisation in home products with its "bespoke" upholstery service. Innovation also extends to online where, as well as an extensive overhaul to the website, new delivery options such as Collect Plus have been trialled.

If innovation is important, it is nothing without proper execution. This is another area in which John Lewis arguably excels. Although the company has a lot on its agenda, it usually takes the time to think changes through and ensure they are properly delivered. The upshot is that the vast majority of the developments it puts in place deliver good returns.

Current and past success is all well and good; however, maintaining this for the future is what really counts. On this front, we hold with our view that John Lewis will significantly outperform the market over the medium term. A new pipeline of stores, further range innovation, continued investment in the website and fulfilment, and strong marketing campaigns will all underpin future growth. It is also true that despite the fact the business is now much larger than it was 5 years ago it still has massive headroom for growth in terms of both new customer acquisition and geographical expansion.

Waitrose

In a flat grocery market Waitrose put in a stellar performance with significant advancements in both total and like-for-like sales. This comes off the back of a long period of market outperformance, over which time the grocer has successfully grown its market share against the backdrop of a very tough, competitive trading environment.

Particularly pleasing is the success of the online operation, where sales were up by 40.6%. This is the result of both strong marketing and investment in fulfilment capacity to increase slot availability for consumers.

Innovation remains at the heart of Waitrose’s success. On the food front this manifested itself in the redevelopment of the Menu range, an enhancement and extension of home-baking products, and extending the premium Heston range of products to new categories. Outside of food Waitrose has also been proactive in seeking out new sales opportunities, such as in gardening where it developed a new horticulture range designed to appeal to its largely green-fingered customer base. In a market where food volume growth will remain sluggish, indentifying such incremental sales opportunities has become increasingly important and is something that will deliver growth for Waitrose over the longer term.

Store investment and enhancement will also help drive sales over the medium term and is also important in terms of allowing Waitrose to maintain its service differentiation. In this regard the new service desks the company is introducing will help improve service standards for click-and-collect shoppers as well as underlining many of the (often previously ‘hidden’) added-value service Waitrose offers, such as flower wrapping and the loan of glasses or fish kettles.

Although the grocery market will remain challenged in terms of volume growth, our view is that Waitrose will continue to build share. A combination of new store openings, a continued commitment to value, the growth of convenience and online, and some conservative expansion of the non-food offer will all underpin this success.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder