The crucial Christmas trading season can be make or break for retailers. As the festive season got under way, companies faced intense competition to win sales as cash-strapped consumers constrained by falling real pay sought out the best deals. It was tough for the whole retail market, but so far, more winners have emerged than losers.
The UK’s biggest supermarket chain is one of the winners. It reported like-for-like sales growth of 1.9% for its UK stores, a performance it said was thanks to the strength of its food business which saw underlying growth of 3.4%.
Dave Lewis, Tesco’s chief executive, was upbeat, saying Tesco is “firmly on track to deliver our medium-term ambitions.”
Underlying sales at John Lewis department stores rose 3.1% over the six weeks to 30 December. Its sister chain Waitrose enjoyed growth of 1.5% on a like-for-like basis.
Chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield said the group had traded well but the widespread discounting in the market had hurt profits as its “never knowingly undersold” pledge forced it to match rivals prices.
Like-for-like sales have become the benchmark in the City for judging the current performance of retailers. Typically represented as percentage growth rates, like-for-like sales measure sales at stores that have been open for at least a year, stripping out the impact of sales at newer stores. The idea is that they allow a more transparent comparison of a retailer’s sales performance over a certain period of time, when compared with the same period of time a year earlier.
However, there is no formal industry standard. This means that some companies include new extensions to stores in their like-for-like sales, while others include sales generated by a customer paying with a voucher. Critics of the measure say that like-for-like sales do not always give an accurate picture of a retailer’s health. They argue that of greater relevance is profitability and how well a company is adapting to challenges such as the living wage and online shopping revolution.
The UK’s second-largest supermarket benefited from its merger with Argos, despite experiencing “challenging conditions”. The company upgraded profit expectations by about 5%, saying it had been able to make cost savings from its tie-up with the retail chain earlier than expected.
Sales at established stores rose by 1.1% in the 15 weeks to 6 January, in line with consensus. The company said Argos had gained market share, despite a 1.4% fall in sales almost entirely due to the closure of dozens of outlets of the DIY chain Homebase, as a result of the change in ownership. Sainsbury’s increased grocery sales by 2.3%, partly as a result of inflation, and there was an 8.2% surge in sales at the group’s convenience stores and a 7.3% rise online.
The fashion and homeware chain kicked off the festive reporting season in style, beating forecasts by reporting a surprise rise in sales. Next received a last-minute boost from the the colder weather in the run-up to Christmas, which helped the retailer achieve a 1.5% increase in total sales in the 54 days to 24 December. It was much better than the 0.3% fall that City analysts had predicted, and prompted Next to upgrade its profit expectations for the year to January.
The UK’s fourth largest supermarket chain was a Christmas hit with bargain-hunting shoppers, after it said it had held the price of a basket of key festive items at the same level as the previous year, despite the rising cost of many commodities.
Morrisons said it had improved customer service by opening more tills and improving stock availability, while shoppers snapped up premium foods, children’s clothes and bags of vegetables. Sales rose by 2.8% in the 10 weeks to 7 January, well ahead of the 1.7% expected by analysts.
The online electrical retailer said it was “on track” as it posted UK revenue growth of 11.4% in the three months to 31 December. Revenues in its Europe business jumped nearly 60% excluding currency effects, and overall group revenues advanced 16.6%.
Even so, AO, which sells domestic appliances and electronic products in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, remained “cautious given the uncertain UK economic outlook”.
The online fashion retailer said it had its best Black Friday period ever and that its PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal brands, acquired in late 2016 and early 2017 respectively, were faring well. Boohoo revenues rose 25% to £142.6m in the four months to 31 December – slightly worse than expected – while PrettyLittleThing revenues beat expectations with a 191% surge to £73.8m and Nasty Gal made £11.9m. The retailer raised its forecast for full-year group revenue growth to 90% from 80%.
The recently floated clothing chain popular with middle-class women and known for its bright floral prints and pink wellies enjoyed a bumper Christmas. Sales jumped 19.2% in the seven weeks to 7 January, compared with the same period a year earlier.
Joules said sales had grown both in its chain of shops and online, with the chief executive, Colin Porter, putting the success down to the “strength of the Joules brand, unique product proposition and customer engagement”. The company, which has 118 UK stores, said gross retail margins were unchanged over the festive period because it took “a selective approach to promotional activity”.
The casual clothing retailer was another festive winner, revealing a 12% increase in total sales in the five weeks to January. Fat Face said its decision not to go down the pre-Christmas discounting route was crucial to its success.
“We continue to believe that giving our customers price integrity before the big day has been central to this performance,” said Anthony Thompson, chief executive. Like-for-like sales over the five weeks rose 8%, and it had its best ever week of sales in the week ending 30 December.
Vintage designer clothing and first-edition books helped drive a sharp rise in online sales at Oxfam over Christmas. They jumped by one-third in the eight weeks to 23 December, increasing total sales by 1.2% to £16.9m. The charity store chain also more than doubled sales of its ethical Sourced by Oxfam gifts.
Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer reported a downbeat set of figures with a slump in sales of both food and clothing. Chief executive Steve Rowe admitted there had been a “mixed” performance. Like-for-like clothing and homewares sales at the highstreet stalwart fell 2.8% while, despite inflation of about 3.7%, sales in its food halls were down 0.4%.
House of Fraser
Another loser, House of Fraser said sales in its stores fell 2.9% in the six weeks to 23 December. Its internet sales were also down 7.5%. Its chief executive Alex Williamson said it had pulled back from discounting to shore up profits.
Last week it emerged that the department store chain is pushing its landlords for a rent cut, and planning to downsize some of its stores.
The first shock of the Christmas reporting season came from Debenhams last week, which brought its festive update forward by a week to issue a profits warning. The department store chain said sales of seasonal gifts and clothing had fallen, despite heavy discounting.
Sales fell by 2.6% at Debenhams’ established UK stores, open for more than a year, in the 17 weeks to 30 December. Shares fell by 15% after the retailer warned full-year profits would come in between £55m and £65m – sharply below City expectations of £83m.
The baby and maternity products chain was another festive loser, after its decision to hold off from discounting in the run-up to Christmas failed to pay off. Mothercare was forced to issue a profits warning after like-for-like sales fell by 7.2% over the 12 weeks to 30 December.
The retailer said pre-tax profits in the full year to the end of March were likely to be somewhere between £1m and £5m – well below City expectations of £10m and a far cry from the £19.7m achieved a year earlier. Shares plunged by more than 30% to an all-time low of 42p.
The men’s outfitter warned that profits would be slightly lower than expected, blaming lower shopper numbers in its stores. Like-for-like store sales slumped 8% in December in what the company described as “a very challenging backdrop”. It said consumer demand was weaker while it faced “cost headwinds”.
Total retail sales rose 1.6% in the 23 weeks to 6 January, helped by a 12.3% rise online. It said profits for the year to the end of January would be between £6.5m and £6.8m, which it said was slightly below analysts’ expectations.