While the numbers beat expectations, no one will have been surprised by the overall tone of WHSmith’s interim results yesterday.
Profits up, like-for-likes down has been a recurring theme of Kate Swann’s tenure, but while some may be concerned by where the sales growth is going to come from, shareholders won’t be complaining.
Swann isn’t one for the limelight and her approach isn’t for the retail purists. But under the radar she has been busily reworking the business while improving profitability and returning cash to shareholders.
And while the company may not always make the headlines, she is an unlikely innovator. Whether it be bringing Post Offices and bureaux de changes into high street stores or expanding the successful travel retail model to motorway service areas and hospitals, she has not been afraid to look radically at the business.
The big doubt about Smiths has been whether, when the cost savings become harder to come by, will sales growth return to drive profitability? There is still a way to go before Swann gets the entertainment element of the sales mix down to the mid-single figure percentage she is looking for and that shift is continuing to push down the high street like for like.
But there were signs yesterday that the corner may be being turned. For the first time in a long time, the high street business outperformed expectations and the addition of Post Offices into 77 stores should drive footfall, vital in an impulse-driven business.
There is still plenty more to do and Swann’s ruthless approach to costs hasn’t endeared her to the staff in the stores. But this is one company that has been quietly turned around, and with its low average transaction value, should ride out the downturn unscathed.
Home shopping hiatus
Home shopping is immune from the credit crunch? Don’t you believe it. Findel’s profit warning yesterday came after months of upbeat comments about sales and denials that bad debts would dampen the company’s performance.
You don’t have to be Einstein to realise that credit based forms of retailing are vulnerable in a tightening economy and, by talking things up for so long, chief executive Patrick Jolly has done no-one any favours, including rivals like N Brown. Yesterday’s 37 per cent fall in the share price illustrates sums up a loss of credibility that Jolly will struggle to recover from.