Naughty, naughty Woolies: guilty of spinning the first quarter’s retail sales figures by a bit of selective comparison.

The retailer did well, reporting a solid lift first quarter sales on a topline and comparable store basis, and maintained its sales growth guidance for the full year.

But there were signs of a noticeable slowdown compared with the first quarter of 2007, especially in same store sales growth from food and liquor outlets and Big W stores. And guess what? Apart from comparing the overall sales figures with the September quarter of 2007, Woolies changed the basis of comparison for same store sales, using instead the figures from the fourth quarter of the 2008 year (the preceding June quarter).

That small sleight of comparison wasn’t picked up in this morning media reports.

But if you go back to the first quarter sales report for the September quarter last year you find that the retailer compared the sales performance in that quarter with the first quarter of the preceding year, the proper basis of comparison.

Here’s how Woolies reported the performance of the Food and Liquor business for the first (September) quarter of 2007-08 financial year (that’s the year to June this year).

Australian Food and Liquor sales for the quarter increased 8.7%. Comparable store sales in Australian Food and Liquor division for the quarter increased 7.6% (Q1 2007: 4.9%). Inflation in the first quarter was less than 2%. (My bolding) The number of customers shopping with us has continued to increase reflecting their acceptance of ongoing improvements in our offer and recognition of its value.

And here’s how it yesterday reported the first quarter (September) of the current 2008-09 financial year (that’s the year to June, 2009).

Australian Food and Liquor sales for the quarter increased 8.3%. Comparable store sales in Australian Food and Liquor division for the quarter increased 6.0%. (Q4 2008: 4.9%) Inflation in the first quarter was 3.2%. (Q4 2008: 2.9%) (My bolding again) Key strategic initiatives focussed on our customers, including the accelerated rollout of our 2010c store format, our Everyday Rewards Program and continued price re-investment have all contributed to this sales result. These initiatives continue to be well received by our customers.

That’s naughty and isn’t a valid comparison because food retailing is a seasonal thing. It’s effectively comparing late winter and early Spring with Autumn, which is a low point for the year.

If you look at the two sentences in bold though you find the topline sales growth in the September quarter of this year was lower than in 2007 and the drop in same store sales (the best measure of retail growth) was also lower.

But if you look at the impact of inflation, actual sales volume in the latest quarter was much worse. Inflation in the September 2008 quarter was 3.2% and with same store sales growth of 6%, meant Woolies sold around 2.8% more groceries and liquor etc in the quarter.

But in the same quarter of 2007, inflation was “less than 2%” and same store sales were up 7.6%, so Woolies sold more goods, around 5.6% more in volume, or twice as much as in the September quarter of this year.

Woolies changed the basis for comparison of same store sales in the Big W chain and in its consumer electronics business.

Australian and New Zealand consumer electronics grew by 6.1% on a top line basis in the September quarter, compared with 10.5% in the same quarter of 2007. Same store sales in the latest quarter averaged 4.9% growth, lower than the 6.1% in the same quarter of 2007.

BIG W sales grew by 10.7% during the quarter and 4.4% on a same store basis (2.6% in the 4th quarter of 2008. but sharply down from the 9.6% same store sales growth in the same quarter of 2007). That’s a noticeable slowdown.

Could it be that Big W sales slipped into the negative column in the closing weeks of the quarter, much like Harvey Norman’s have done?

Peter Fray

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