UK: A change in store at Littlewoods. (2 of 4)

UK: A change in store at Littlewoods. (2 of 4) - But Littlewoods is in the mass market. It has six catalogues, each historically in a different market or geographical position. In recent years they have been streamlined to the point where they are totall

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But Littlewoods is in the mass market. It has six catalogues, each historically in a different market or geographical position. In recent years they have been streamlined to the point where they are totally identical, except for the name and the cover. Curiously, explains Bill Huntley, head of home shopping, the brands are still differentiated by the users.

These users, unsurprisingly, are mostly housewives. Huntley, a burly 51 year old, has created a constant reminder of who they are and what they want in the form of glossy profiles, complete with pictures, inserted beneath a glass plate on the leather-topped table in his office. "Our typical agent is 35, married, not working, has an income of £10,500, two kids and a Ford Escort," he explains.

In recent years she has often taken to using the catalogue just for herself, looking on the agency commission as a personal discount. Indeed, half of Littlewoods' 2.5 million agents have adopted this route and the average number of customers per agent has fallen from between six and 10 to just over two. This is bad news for Littlewoods since turnover among agents tends to be high and recruiting new ones costs the same (about £50) irrespective of the amount of business that they bring.

"We are concerned," says Huntley. "But there's no point trying to fight it. That's just the way it is," he adds. Littlewoods, therefore, has concentrated on cutting costs. The past five years have seen heavy investment in a fully integrated computer system that allows it to deal with a customer's total needs in one phone call - ordering, cancelling and general enquiries. It has also beefed up debt collection by the simple expedient of using the phone instead of relying on writing to people for all its credit control.

This combination of measures has pulled home shopping up from its early 1980s doldrums: 1989 turnover was £956 million and pre-interest profits a reasonably respectable £54.4 million. On those figures, reckons Joan D'Olier, retail analyst at County NatWest, the business must be on the market at £350-£450 million. Sears is the obvious potential buyer, with 15% of the mail order market. Littlewoods' 25% would give it the size to be able to rival Great Universal Stores, the clear market leader on 40%. If Sears is not interested, speculates D'Olier, Littlewoods may float the division.

With home shopping out of the way, Pitcher will be able to concentrate on the football pools and high street retailing. The pools is how Littlewoods first began back in 1923 when John Moores, a working class lad from Manchester, made his first million with a winning blend of football and gambling. Seventy years later the magic mix of high rewards, low outlay and supposed skill in judging football results continues unchanged; except, of course, that punters can now win £1.5 million instead of the modest £2 12s that comprised the first ever dividend.

But despite being a household name, pools is the most secretive part of Littlewoods' business. What is known is that Littlewoods has a virtual monopoly (over 75%) of the £750 million pools market. The business is effectively recession proof; if anything it probably does better when times are hard. In the year to July 1990 Littlewoods paid out some £170 million in prize money (15% up on 1989) and, according to finance director Barry Dale, brought in £17 million profit.

What is more, the law is on Littlewoods' side in keeping its dominant position. Since companies are allowed to pay out dividends only from that week's stakes, market share is the sole key to the magic lure of vast prize money. A distant second to the Littlewoods giant is Vernons Pools, which can offer punters a mere half million. However, now in the hands of Cyril Stein's Ladbroke Group, Vernons has been making bullish noises about capturing extra market share. Pitcher seems unperturbed. "They've done little different except increase advertising," he suggests dismissively.

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