Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

Amazon.com Inc.'s foray into selling fresh food in Britain hasn't killed off Ocado Group Plc. That's the message from the U.K. online grocer's full-year results on Tuesday.

Ocado's pre-tax profit before one-off losses rose from 11.9 million pounds ($14.8 million) to 14.5 million pounds in the year to Nov. 27, well ahead of the consensus of analysts' forecasts -- though a 2.4 million-pound one-off loss makes the performance not quite so impressive. The shares rose as much as 9.2 percent, the most since May.

Profit Progress
Ocado's pre-tax profit gain last year was checked by one-off items
Source: Bloomberg

It’s still a decent showing, considering the behemoth that's moved into Ocado's backyard. Its resilience should give hope to some other U.K. companies battling Amazon, such as food delivery firms Just Eat Plc and Deliveroo.

Getting fresh food to the customer is notoriously difficult, and whatever Ocado's shortcomings, there is no denying it has cracked it. It will take time for Amazon to catch up. That has been the case in the U.S., and it is likely to be true for Europe, too.

That's in stark contrast to areas such as toys and entertainment, where Amazon remains a potent force. This is bad news for Ocado's rival J Sainsbury Plc, which has pinned its colors to the non-food mast with its purchase of Argos.

But the threat from Amazon to the food retailers -- including Ocado -- shouldn't be ignored. Its online food services have been gradually gaining traction.

Amazonian Shadow
Ocado shares have struggled under the weight of threats from Amazon's European arrival
Source: Bloomberg

This makes it all the more pressing for Ocado to clinch a contract to provide internet services to a big international grocer. Ocado said Tuesday it was now more confident about finding such a partner, and hoped to sign multiple deals in the medium term. 

But we've been hearing this for years. Unfortunately for Ocado's investors, that delivery continued to be stuck in the warehouse on Tuesday. If ever there was a time to clinch a deal, it's now. The slump in the pound after the Brexit vote makes paying for its sterling-denominated services cheaper to potential customers outside the U.K.

And there were also some niggles in Ocado's performance last year. The average basket size fell by 2.7 percent. The company says this reflects the impact of falling food prices and takeup of its Smart Pass, where customers pay a fee for free delivery.

Cut Price
Ocado's lost its premium to Amazon as it struggles to find an international partner
Source: Bloomberg

Net debt has also increased, rising to 164.9 million pounds from 127 million pounds the previous year, as Ocado invests in new distribution centers. Capital expenditure will also step up to 175 million pounds this year, compared with 153 million pounds in 2016. The nature of Ocado's business means that it has to keep investing in new infrastructure, which is another concern for investors.

Ocado's enterprise value is 1.2 times forecast revenues, a steep discount to Amazon's 2.3 times. That is warranted, given that Amazon's tentacles reach into many facets of retail, not just food. Ocado needs an powerful overseas contract to have any hope of closing this gap.

But the fact that it's been able to weather Amazon's European grocery assault so far gives it some breathing room until it can finally bag its big international deal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net