THE decision by the retail giant Woolworths to accelerate spending on store upgrades, new stores and systems for its ailing New Zealand supermarkets and Dick Smith businesses has ignited concerns about the size of the outlay in this economic climate.
The Merrill Lynch retail analyst David Errington said yesterday that while he was pleased with the company's progress, the aggressive push to expand its New Zealand stores and Dick Smith by increasing investment was a worry. It appears that Woolworths is in a hurry … and we are concerned that being in such a hurry could cause the company some short-term turbulence. We have concerns with throwing a lot of money into NZ and [Dick Smith electronics] … particularly in current economic conditions and [given that Woolworths is not the leader in those market segments]."
Woolworths should not increase its spending so quickly but improve its businesses more incrementally, he said. Pumping more money into its two weakest divisions could be "throwing good money after bad",
Woolworths had $930 million in capital expenditure in the first half across all its businesses, compared with less than $300 million by Coles.
Spending by Woolworths was 45 per cent up on the $639 million it spent in the same period last year. Over the full financial year total capex is expected to be almost $2 billion, compared with $1.1 billion a year for Coles Group businesses, which are owned by Wesfarmers.
On Friday the chief financial officer, Tom Pockett, implied that capital expenditure would also exceed $2 billion next financial year. The Woolworths decision to increase its capex comes as its British peer, Tesco, cut its allocation by about 11 per cent to less than £4 billion ($9 billion) this year, and Wal-Mart in the US said it would spend about 13 per cent, or about $US13 billion ($20.5 billion), less this year.
In its first-half result announced on Friday Woolworths said earnings in its New Zealand supermarkets fell 8 per cent and at its Australia-New Zealand Dick Smith business 27 per cent.
Woolworths supermarkets in New Zealand slashed grocery prices to win market share from the market leader, Foodstuffs, triggering lower earnings.
Costs also rose due to compulsory increases in the minimum wage for its youngest staff, and the introduction of a superannuation scheme.
Mr Errington criticised the Woolworths decision to buy the New Zealand business for $2.5 billion. "Woolworths bought a distressed, run-down asset a number of years ago, and the business is not improving." The first-half earnings of $NZ92 million ($71.5 million) did not support the $NZ2.8 billion of funds invested and was an unacceptable result, he said.