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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.