Who won Christmas? Like a relay, it’s a staggered race, with the leads that open up only emerging next week in the final bend. But at the moment, it looks like Waitrose (among the major mults) is ahead, overtaking M&S - whose 17% growth in food sales in the Christmas week implies the overall 13-week 0.1% rise would otherwise have been negative.
But perhaps the better question to ask, when it comes to Christmas trading, is not who won. (In this analogy I expect Aldi to be played by Usain Bolt, powering down the final straight, laying to waste any lingering misgivings about the true winners this Christmas.)
The real battle is to avoid being last. And at the moment it looks like Tesco avoided the wooden spoon (p4), with its -0.3% decline in like-for-like sales over the six-week Christmas period, and its -2.9% over 19 weeks, both representing an improvement (though at 4.2% Q3 itself was still fairly grim).
That’s certainly how I’m interpreting Asda’s decision this week to drop to 89p the price of a four-pint carton of milk, part of a £300m price investment in the first quarter.
Tesco critics will say new boss Dave Lewis didn’t ‘save’ Christmas (as some claimed this week). He ‘bought’ it, via pre-Christmas vouchering. On the other hand, “limited” discounting via Tesco’s pre-Christmas ‘festive five’ promotion resulted in the first increase in fresh produce volumes since 2009. It goes to show little gimmicks (and good availability) can still pay dividends (albeit not to shareholders, in this case).
Of course, we won’t know till after Tesco’s 28 February year end the impact of its investment in the bottom line (though encouragingly Lewis maintained the same £1.4bn guidance), but the important thing is it’s stopped the rot, and that’s a huge boost. Confidence - among staff, suppliers and customers - is huge in retail. And that’s going to be even more important as Lewis accompanied the trading update with drastic plans to cut overheads by £250m (p5), closing 43 stores, axing plans for 49 more, and ditching 20,000 lines from its range. And if closing its Cheshunt HQ isn’t a statement of intent I don’t know what is.