Bunnings’ $1 billion UK bungle
THERE are plenty of things the Brits like so much about Australia they've adopted them as their own. Flat whites, comedian Adam Hills and Westfield shopping centres included. But not Bunnings, it seems.
A year after the first sausage was sizzled outside a Bunnings Warehouse in Britain, the chain is in serious trouble.
On Monday, Rob Scott, the managing director of Bunnings' parent company Wesfarmers, said its UK foray had been "disappointing". How disappointing? Well, the Perth company has taken a $1.3 billion hit to its bottom line, the majority due to Bunnings UK. A review of the business is underway.
Mr Scott said all options were on the table, including a retreat back to Australia.
British industry analysts our sister paper news.com.au have spoken to say Bunnings which, in 2016 paid $700m for established player Homebase, fundamentally misjudged the UK DIY market.
Management was "arrogant" thinking Brits would be won over by a "copy and paste" Australian model and the stores were stocked with the wrong products - super-sized barbecues beloved in Brisbane weren't selling in overcast Birmingham.
"It's been a disaster from the moment they landed," Steve Collinge, a commentator on the UK home improvement industry and Managing Director of market intelligence agency Insight Retail Group, said.
"I can't see anything they can do now," he said predicting Wesfarmers would leave the UK within 12 months.
This was Bunnings' Masters moment, he added. Its very success at defeating Woolworths' nascent DIY chain had led to a repeat of the same mistakes.
In an announcement ahead of its half year results, Wesfarmers said Bunnings UK & Ireland (BUKI) and the struggling Target chain were responsible for $1.3bn in writedowns.
That includes $795m in non-cash impairments at Bunnings UK and $66m in excess stock the Brits just don't want to buy. For the half year BUKI is expected to make a $165m loss.
"The Homebase acquisition has been below our expectations which is obviously disappointing. In light of this, a review of BUKI has commenced to identify the actions required to improve shareholder returns," Mr Scott said.
"We are not just going to let this roll out for years and years and years," he told The Australian. "We need to provide certainty and clarity."
Mr Collinge said he had his doubts from the get go. "Bringing in a brand unknown to Britain and thinking that would work was a fool's game. It was a disaster from the moment they landed.
"They paid over the odds for a business (Homebase) that has never made a lot of money."
Mr Collinge said Bunnings, which now has 19 UK branches, promised three things to UK consumers: the widest range, the lowest prices and the best service.
On all three metrics they had failed, he said. Most converted Homebase stores are smaller than Australian Bunnings, and 60 per cent smaller than arch UK rival B & Q, so they can't possibly have the widest range. A lack of a transactional website meant that range also wasn't available online.
When it came to price, Bunnings may indeed be cheap but in a market where it isn't market leader it had sacrificed profit margin to do so.
Finally there was service. "Retail service in the UK is not great and from day one Bunnings did a better job, but as soon as the profit pain started they cut staff numbers.
"Service was the only way to deliver any differentiation and so they shot themselves in the foot, reloaded the gun and shot themselves again."
'BUNNINGS DOESN'T APPEAL HERE'
Elias Jahshan is the editor of the UK industry publication Retail Gazette. An Australian expat, he says the Bunnings' British problem is personal.
"I'm devastated it doesn't get that much love here. It would've been nice to see a familiar brand name to remind you of home," he told news.com.au.
"In Australia it has a cult status. There was no way Bunnings could translate that to the UK - it just doesn't seem to appeal here."
He said the chain appeared to be unaware of the British climate. "Australia has longer summers that make it a bonanza for Bunnings. Also, it's more likely Aussies have their own private backyard than Brits - so I really don't see how they would've created demand when weather and space work against them."
But Mr Jahshan believes Bunnings' woes were "teething problems" rather than a broken model.
"There is still a chance for it succeed but it will probably be operating at a loss for another year or so before it does."
Mr Collinge agreed Bunnings' ranging didn't resonate. Huge Australian sized barbecues aimed at consumers who might cook outside only a few times a year and too much outdoor furniture that, left unsold during the brief summer, had ended up clogging the aisles in midwinter.
By clearing out popular products, Bunnings had "fundamentally destroyed" Homebase, he said, a store that while hardly firing on all cylinders did have steady sales.
"Homebase attracted people who wanted inspiration and ideas and who hated B & Q because it was a dirty old warehouse full of men, and Bunnings have turned it into exactly that."
Homebase stores now resembled an "indoor car boot sale," he said.
Mr Scott said of Homebase: "non-core categories were exited ahead of the implementation of the Bunnings format, and investments in price and new ranges have not offset these lost sales."
Despite Wesfarmers' claims a full scale exit was just one option, Mr Collinge said all the signs were company bosses were itching to board the next flight out of Heathrow.
"Wesfarmers haven't just paved the way for a possible [UK] exit. They've tarmacked a six lane, one way, super-highway to Exitville," he tweeted.
At $2m a pop, the cost of converting hundreds of stores was just too big a risk. "No one's going to do that for a business that isn't going to make a profit."
Mr Collinge said Wesfarmers' crushing of Woolworths' Masters chain had led to hubris.
"It fed into the psychology that they were so powerful and unbeatable they could take on anybody. And they misjudged Britain by some distance."
Bunnings is profitable. It raked in $1.25m last year and Australians show no sign of losing their love of a tin of paint washed down with a sausage chaser.
But if Wesfarmers does give up on Britain it will come at a hefty price with lease liabilities in the region of $1 billion.
Mr Collinge said if Bunnings had kept the cash flow coming in from Homebase and not made such rash promises on price and range it could have been a different story.
"It's not as if the competition here is incredibly strong. It could have been the perfect time for a strong competitor and take market away but there was arrogance.
"They really believed that a copy and paste of something successful Down Under would be irresistible to UK consumers."
Wesfarmers has been contacted for comment.