Woolworths shareholders have had a torrid couple of years. The company’s market capitalisation is down around a third since mid-2014 – quite a hit for a company once worth almost A$50 billion dollars. Today it forecast a 35% fall in half-year profit, sending its shares plunging by more than 9%.
The disastrous Masters foray is partly to blame. Conceived in oligopolitical hubris, Masters has been an unmitigated disaster for Woolworths shareholders. They were right to expect far better from the company’s exceedingly well-remunerated board and senior executives. The fact that Masters has ended quite a few careers is cold comfort for shareholders who have lost hard earned savings and superannuation.
Today’s results open a new chapter of woe. Once, Masters was seen as an unfortunate sideshow, able to be separated from the Goliathan strength of Woolies’ grocery cash machine. Today, the illusory nature of that misapprehension has emerged – with sales in decline year-on-year for like stores, and a flagged collapse of earnings by up to a third and, most tellingly, no end in sight.
While the problems of the last 18 months at Woolworths have often been ascribed to the Masters debacle, analysts have long been worried about the main game in groceries. Aldi, the privately-held German multinational, has been playing a cautious and patient long game.
Aldi’s “value proposition” to consumers is starkly different to both Woolworths and Coles, and it’s clear Australians have warmed to what Aldi has to offer – a narrow range of good quality products at prices equivalent to the majors’ “specials”. The narrow range and small format stores have the additional benefit of quick and easy shopping for busy consumers. Woolworths has been losing market share quickly.
Its response has so far been too little and too late. Woolworths has tried to “shoehorn” an Aldi equivalent into the lower shelves of its large format stores. It suggests to consumers that they can get a basket of goods similar to Aldi’s at the same price within their stores if they look hard enough. In this regard – to paraphrase the late, great Z.Z. Hill - what Woolies are selling, Australians ain’t buying.
The limited success of this “Aldification” of Woolworths stores has, however, done damage to Woolworths' core business of groceries. Whenever consumers choose the low cost goods within Woolworths, it is at the expense of the higher margin goods they also have for sale. This is evidenced by the steep decline in margins reported today – with sales in slight decline (2.5%) and projected earnings in free fall (28 to 35%). Woolworths is learning the hard way that while revenues are easy to lose, the same can’t be said for the fixed costs involved in running a national retailer.
In the background, again, lies Masters. Its disastrous drain on revenues has meant Woolworths has had little to invest in new stores elsewhere. While Woolworths has opened six new stores during the quarter, Aldi has flagged the opening of up to 80 new stores during 2016, on top of the 80 it opened this year. Its expansion is uncannily like a German train timetable and its geographical spread means most of these new stores will not cannibalise existing sales – something Woolworths can rarely achieve.