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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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