John Lewis gets what it wants, Ocado gets more than enough

John Lewis has had its best-ever week - but it looks like Ocado's getting too much of a good thing.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 19 Nov 2012
It looks like that little boy in the John Lewis ad has done the trick: the department store has just had its best-ever week, racking up sales of just over £133m for the seven days to December 17. Not bad at all, particularly when you consider that most of the high street has been less Miracle on 34th Street and more A Nightmare Before Christmas over the past few weeks. But Lesley Ballantyne, John Lewis’ director for operation development, pointed out that a ‘two-speed high street’ is beginning to emerge.

According to the company’s figures, sales were up 7.8% on the previous week (presumably as consumers tried to get their Christmas shopping over with as quickly as possible), and 10.6% compared with the same period last year. Now admittedly, this time last year high streets were all but deserted because of the snow, so sales figures should be more optimistic for the (comparatively) balmy few weeks we’ve had in the run-up to Christmas. And Ballantyne added that higher prices and three new stores haven’t exactly done John Lewis much harm. But let’s not forget that even with the more favourable conditions, other retailers are having a very different sort of Christmas.

So Ballantyne’s point that ‘there are obviously winners and losers in the market’ is clearly true – although we’re not convinced by John Lewis MD Andy Street’s addition that conditions on the high street are ‘not nearly as bad as some commentators believe’. To begin with, there are enormous differences between the regions – London and the South East doing better than other areas. That said, having borne witness to the staff of one large high street retailer pondering aloud why the (London) store was kept open – ‘we probably haven’t made enough to pay for the electricity’, MT can’t help but think even London retailers are finding it tough.

And even companies closely associated with John Lewis aren’t having the easiest of times – although to be fair, that’s less to do with troubles on the high street and more to do with its own lack of forward planning. Ocado, which given the fact that a) it’s online-only and b) it’s closely associated with Waitrose, subsidiary of John Lewis, and thus should be benefitting from the retailer’s Midas-like effect, should by rights be doing very well indeed. Alas, ‘tis not so: the company’s issued a profit warning because of problems with delivery capacity. As a result, it expects its ebitda to be between £27.5m and £28.5m this year – 14% less than analysts had expected. That sent its share price plummeting by nearly 9% this morning.

Tim Steiner, the company’s CEO, said Ocado is planning to add another distribution centre in Warwickshire, but admitted it’s a bit late. ‘We are… disappointed that we did not achieve as large or as early an increase as we had originally planned,’ he said. Still – at least its troubles are caused by too many orders. Which is a lot more than can be said for the rest of the sector…

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