Sunday, 1 July 2012

Is taking a page out of Booker's book an opportunity for Ocado?

Another set of Ocado sales figures, another half year of no-profit growth.

The latest figures continue to underline the basic issue with Ocado's business model. Quite simply, on a cart-by-cart basis they've just about made it break-even. But on that same basis it's extraordinarily difficult to see where the profits are going to come from.

This picture tells the story:

Ocado enjoys pretty good margins for a Food retailer, but these are entirely swallowed by the costs of delivering each order. Margins are being squeezed, and delivery income is being squeezed by increasing competition.

The only way forwards is to increase cart-sizes. But year-on-year, cart-sizes actually fell  by almost £2 between 2010 and 2011 as customers cut back.

One option to increase cart-sizes to to increase the range of products on offer, which Ocado continues to do. The problem with this approach is that eventually you start to extend into categories which are not naturally part of a weekly grocery shop. Health & beauty: maybe. Consumer electronics or fashion: probably not. And as Ocado themselves observe in their analyst presentations, non-food requires a different distribution model. In other words, it doesn't really play to their strengths. Worse still, it sets them into online competition with Amazon, John Lewis, Tesco Direct, Argos, Debenhams, Marks-and-Spencer...

But while Ocado has been slugging it out unprofitably with the supermarkets, another online Food retailer has been quietly growing its online business even faster than Ocado: Booker Cash & Carry.

And while Ocado has a minimum cart-size of £50, Booker has two minimums (depending on whether you are a restaurant or corner-shop customers): £100 and £500. What would Ocado give for some £500 shopping carts? Maybe a bit of that 26% gross margin - cash-and-carry margins are inevitably lower. And e-commerce in the B2smallB sector is a tough nut to crack. These customers expect B2bigB service, B2bigB prices, and B2C charges.

But with all that automated infrastructure, you can't help wondering if there's an easier way to profitable growth than slugging it out with Tesco and Sainsburys.

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