It was the hybrid tech-retail business that promised the world to investors and industry. But in its 23 years of operation, Ocado is yet to turn a profit.
Every financial update is full of promises, not performances – or, as I like to call it, full of ’jam tomorrow’. So why has it, in its own words, ‘shot up the FTSE’?
Its current market cap stands at $6.27bn. This makes Ocado the world’s 2,134th most valuable company on that basis. At its peak, its market cap was $29bn. This is from a company that has never turned a profit.
The group has done very well at signing overseas deals with food groups, that’s clear. The share price reflects this and, of course, the hope that it will come good and once again reach those dizzying market cap heights.
It can feel like a test of endurance. Despite outperforming City expectations in the first half of this year, Ocado announced losses of £500m in its last full-year results – citing a slowdown in retail operations, rising costs, difficulties in the supply chain, food inflation and one-off charges. The year prior, it cited a return to pre-Covid buying behaviour as a reason for a lacklustre performance. What about the other 22 years?
The point of this article isn’t to bash Ocado – I think it’s a remarkable idea with some very talented people and IP. But the future promises are wearing thin, even if its backers are resolute.
That said, every year that passes, takeover rumours abound. The latest are a recycling of past Amazon rumours. But at its current ‘valuation’ I cannot see a takeover with any business happening. Perhaps if the valuation was more realistic, it could be a match for someone.
Ocado has partnered with a number of retail brands previously, but they have all seen ‘something’ that doesn’t work for them and the partnership has been broken. I was asked last week if M&S should buy Ocado, given that partnership seems to be working better than prior ones. My answer is no. If M&S benefits from the partnership that can be broken, why buy into it and risk its current successful strategy?
In my view, Ocado is seen as the middle-class brand of the home counties that is reassuringly expensive. While it will never be a value brand in the purest sense of the word, it could do with a new comms campaign that reaches a wider audience and shows its eco credentials, standard of food and value for money.
Either way, clearly Ocado remains popular with its backers, who have remained faithful for decades – otherwise we’d be listening to talks of administration, not acquisition. There is also something about Ocado that keeps retailers looking at it. Perhaps a mix of its innovation, intellectual property, tech platform and overseas deals.
Whatever it is, I hope it’s more than its promise, and that it works out how to translate its expertise into profit and performance – fast.