Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Why customers here can't Wait any longer

Sometimes business is all about the long game. And yesterday came a reminder that even grocery retail doesn't always yield overnight successes.

Online grocer Ocado has made a profit of £7.5m over the six months to May 18, compared to a £3.8m loss a year earlier.

It leaves the high-end retailer on course to make its first annual profit in its 12 years.

The company is backed by John Lewis Partnership, and sells Waitrose products, as well as some branded lines. It's beloved of many Irish and Northern Ireland people living in Blighty because of its Irish and Northern Irish aisles, purveying delights like Rankins potato farls, Barry's Tea, Mash Direct's prepared vegetables and even Thompson's tea bags. However, it doesn't yet deliver to Northern Ireland.

Shares still dived 5% after the results were announced, thanks to concerns about competition in the supermarket sector.

Kantar Worldpanel has said growing competition between supermarket competitors has dragged price inflation in the sector down to its lowest level for almost eight years.

Ocado obviously has a happy relationship with Waitrose but the latter has had a cautious relationship with Northern Ireland. We've heard frequent reports that it has been on the verge of signing up – usually to a site in a 'desirable' area like Holywood in north Down or the Lisburn Road in south Belfast.

But it's never quite happened – although its agriculture director Duncan Sinclair recently gave a tantalising hint that Northern Ireland could finally be on its radar.

He told a farming conference in April that convenience stores and online trading were giving it plenty of scope for expansion. He said it hoped to open 200 of its Little Waitrose format stores by 2020 – and for once, growth would not be confined to the sunny south-east of England.

He said a distribution centre in Lancashire would be used to develop the business "potentially across into Northern Ireland".

If Waitrose finally does open in Northern Ireland – and if Ocado widens its delivery service – shoppers will have the choice they have been itching for.

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