Downturns seem to suit Malcolm Walker. While most retailers are struggling to get to grips with tougher trading, Walker has steered Iceland to its best performance in a decade and managed to find time to make a bid for Woolworths’ retail business too.
The bid – which would have required Woolworths to retain pension liabilities for its former retail staff despite having sold the business – was outrageously cheeky and the Woolies board was right to reject it.
But what it has done is put Woolworths into play and given long-suffering shareholders hope they might actually exit with a better return than they’d feared. Walker has shown at Iceland that he can reinvigorate a tired brand and make it relevant to today’s value-focused shoppers. The same magic is what is desperately needed at Woolworths.
The retailer’s chairman Richard North says that’s what new chief executive Steve Johnson will do, although more key decisions seem to be being made ahead of his arrival, such as reviewing the multichannel Big Red Book offer. Whoever is at the helm, there is plenty of scope for rationalisation and operational improvements.
These are tumultuous times for Woolies and, with disenchanted shareholder Baugur behind Walker, this week’s action is sure to only be the opening salvo. However, one key positive has been overlooked, and that is that this week’s interest shows the board aren’t the only people who believe Woolies has a future as a major high street player.
A convenient truth
As well as Iceland, the big winners in this week’s TNS grocery stats were again the continental hard discounters. Aldi, Lidl and Netto are all on big land grabs, so our front page story on Lidl’s move into convenience should come as no surprise.
Whether it be Waitrose at the top end of the market or Lidl at the bottom, convenience grocery retailing is enjoying a second wave and, with the costs of running a car soaring, making smaller shopping trips on foot makes sense.
The logic is particularly compelling for the discounters. Their customers are less likely to have a car and more likely to shop with low-quality independents offering poor ranges and high prices. If they get their offer right, they could clean up.