This week’s announcement from M&S and Ocado was just the latest in a series of major moves in food retailing. Quite a number of these seem, to me at least, to have been driven more by external considerations than internal ones. This latest development is great for Ocado and its quest to be a tech business rather than a retailer. For Marks, it’s much harder to see the rationale. People rightly say that online grocery is growing faster than physical. But why would you want to chase unprofitable sales, thus diluting your already very low margin food business?
M&S was very keen to highlight the fantastic opportunities it would unlock. Better buying terms through higher volumes. Enabling core M&S clothing customers who want to buy food online the chance to buy M&S, instead shopping elsewhere. Adding Ocado own brand product into M&S stores, creating an entry level offering. However, will lost Waitrose customers be matched or exceeded by gained M&S ones? And in stores, a wider offer will not be easily accommodated in existing footprints. M&S already has long-standing weak food availability, and adding SKUs will pose significant operational challenges in what will remain by far the most important part of the business.
The two parties announced that had the JV been trading for the past year it would have posted sales of £1.5bn and EBITDA of £34m. There was no detail behind this but given that we were also told Waitrose represented 25% of Ocado sales revenue, have they simply assumed M&S will substitute all of Waitrose business ie sales of £367m?
In recent times M&S leadership has emphasised its commitment to building a serious online retail business by adopting the phrase “digital first” to reflect ranging decisions across its clothing will be driven by online. Today, it talked about the same approach in food. I find this worrying. With online clothing sales at just under 19% and M&S/Ocado food (assuming Waitrose’ sales levels as a base) at 6%, this seems like the tail wagging the dog. Indeed, by profit the numbers for physical retail would be vastly more dominant still.
The stock market has marked Marks’ shares down by 12.5%. The dividend cut of 40% on what was once one of the true “blue chip stocks” is symbolic of a company moving away from what used to be its core values. I share the market’s scepticism.
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