Critics on both sides of the UK DIY war came out in force this week to tear strips off both Kingfisher-owned B&Q and its new rival Bunnings.
Financial updates from the two retailers on the self-same day created a good opportunity for invested parties to throw a punch.
But, with Bunnings just one year into its UK venture and Kingfisher two years into a five-year transformation, it is far too early to place bets on which firm will come out on top.
Since Bunnings’ Australian owner Wesfarmers acquired Homebase last year, industry observers – myself included – have considered the potentially mammoth ramifications the new entrant would have on the UK DIY sector.
Market-leader B&Q has long had the British home improvement market tapped, while rival Homebase – with its concession partnerships and soft furnishing offer – catered for a slightly different customer.
But when Wesfarmers unveiled plans to scrap the Homebase fascia (not to mention its board) and launch its Bunnings Warehouse format with its hard-DIY proposition, with power tools aplenty, Kingfisher’s feathers were ruffled.
And rightly so. Bunnings’ plan involves directly parking up on B&Q’s lawn and firing up the barbie for good measure.
But, after issuing staggering losses in its maiden full-year results, some investors demanded answers of the Wesfarmers leadership team, and cast doubt on Bunning’s future in the UK.
Many miles to travel yet
While its critics are, of course, right to raise their doubts, the numbers shouldn’t be seen as huge cause for concern at this embryonic stage of the process.
Bunnings’ UK division is, metaphorically speaking, still clearing the land on which it will eventually build its own grand design.
It may operate the 250-unit Homebase business, but currently only has four pilot stores that are truly representative of the Bunnings offer (and has only given vague indications as to the early performance of these stores).
And while a £54m loss is eye-watering by any standards, the business increased its SKU count and staff numbers, introduced its low-price proposition and spent £19m on one-off restructuring costs – so it’s not hard to see where the money is going.
Sales at Homebase – which were already on a declining trend under its former owner – have also suffered because the stores, to be frank, are not at their best as the new owners sell off old Homebase ranges, pack the aisles full with its new lines and take out its concessions and kitchen and bathroom home-fitting service.
So it’s no surprise some loyal Homebase shoppers are turning their backs.
But the business has to start somewhere. Like any radical home improvement project – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
Even with newly-appointed general manager David Haydon keeping watch over the ailing Homebase business, Bunnings’ focus is – as it should be – on establishing and building its own identity.
Bunnings’ first-year losses, therefore, are not surprising, and not a reflection of who is or isn’t going to lead the way in DIY retailing.
Kingfisher’s own transition hiccups
B&Q is not in the best shape either, and nor can it be expected to be while group chief executive Véronique Laury implements her radical five-year transformation plan One Kingfisher.
Two years in, as with most construction work, some unforeseen disruption has given sales a knock.
While this is unlikely to be the last spanner in the works, if Laury successfully executes the plan to streamline the group’s ranges and update its digital systems, she will be hailed a retail hero.
Read more: Véronique Laury’s vision for Kingfisher
As we stand, neither Bunnings nor B&Q are firing on all cylinders. And poor weather during what is a key DIY trading period only made matters worse.
But while both businesses undergo radical change and resemble – for want of a better term – building sites, it’s futile to pass judgement.
In three year’s time when Laury’s One Kingfisher vision is in place and Bunnings is fully anchored on these shores we will see who prevails in the DIY war or if there is, indeed, space in the £3.4bn UK home improvement market for them both.