View from City Road: Partners are more patient

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The Independent Online
God forbid that any member of Britain's leading employee democracy should contemplate it, but John Lewis workers who hanker for the 20 per cent-plus bonuses of the 1980s should take a hard look at their colleagues in Waitrose. We will have to wait until May to find out how much each business contributed to the partnership's profits, but there are enough hints in the results statement to indicate that the department stores were solely responsible for the 31 per cent increase.

Waitrose's problems are partly because the partnership structure makes it difficult to raise the funds required to match the headlong expansion of rivals such as Sainsbury and Tesco (although, if it could overcome its innate conservatism, a bond or preference share issue would present no problems).

Waitrose pioneered many of the things shoppers now take for granted - like quality food, fresh produce and wine shops. But its 107 stores now pale into insignificance compared with the 350-plus chains of its rivals. That makes it more difficult to force lower prices out of its suppliers, and makes distribution proportionately more costly. Customers do not like it, so that even five store openings could not push sales ahead last year.

Expansion of the department stores has been as cautious - it has only 22, and cities such as Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester have yet to be conquered. But rivals have been closing, not opening while John Lewis's promise of being 'never knowingly undersold' has long established its value for money credentials.

City shareholders would have urged corrective action on Waitrose ages ago. Partners, clearly, are rather more patient. But the partnership should, perhaps, be grateful that, although staff may share the profits, the shares are safely tucked away in a trust.

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