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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.