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

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad