For some, it is the £5 pint. For others, the £10 pack of cigarettes. For this columnist, though, it is the 95p packet of Polos.
Certain price thresholds really bring home the effect of inflation. Lombard is old enough to remember paying £1 for a pint of Skol, about £1.70 for 20 Silk Cut, and just 15p for enough Polos to conceal consumption of the other two (although apparently not old enough to avoid a telling off when ‘Operation Minty Fresh’ proved unsuccessful).
For retailer WH Smith, however — supplier of Polos to commuters be they tipsy, wheezy or otherwise — such pricing power is a boon.
While the rising cost of beer and fags is largely driven by tax, the price of WH Smith’s sweets, foods and gift items reflects its own rising volumes and widening profit margins.
On Wednesday, it reported a 5 per cent rise in like-for-like sales in its Travel division over the 21 weeks to January 21, despite facing its toughest comparatives of the year — it had posted 5 per cent like-for-like growth this time in 2016, too.
Sales at high-street stores fell 3 per cent on a like-for-like basis, but this was still better than analysts’ forecasts, thanks in part to strong sales of spoof books, such as The Ladybird Guide to The Hangover. Perfect for reading on the train in the morning, after some late-night Polo purchasing.
Chief executive Stephen Clarke said half of the Travel division’s strong performance was down to higher passenger numbers.
But the other half was down to initiatives to grow sales and margins. Promotions and increased capacity at airport stores boosted volumes, while a better product mix — more “high growth” souvenirs and food, fewer newspapers and magazines — boosted profitability.
Analysts now see further scope for margin improvements. Based on their forecasts for earnings before interest and tax, margins at a group level will rise from 10 per cent to nearer 12 per cent by full-year 2019.
Profit could grow even sooner, as the past 21 weeks are not the peak for travel. Mr Clarke pointed out that July and August are the equivalent of Christmas for WH Smith’s airport outlets. In other words, for the Travel division this year, Christmas came early. At Christmastime.
One risk is that the high street sales decline gathers pace. Here, FT readers could help. When picking up a low-margin newspaper, why not buy some higher-margin 95p Polos — whether you, ahem, need them or not?
Comply with the code
Move over, RoboCop. A new crime-fighting cyborg is going to clean up this town. Yes, that’s right, it’s . . . RoboComplianceOfficer!
OK, as movie sequels go, it may lack a certain box office appeal. But it more than makes up for that in relevance. According to Richard Lumb, humanoid head of financial services at Accenture, “thousands of roles” in banks’ compliance departments could soon be automated. “Take anti-money laundering,” he suggested to the FT.
He has a point. Avoiding dubious sources of cash is not exactly rocket science, yet Citigroup says compliance costs for the banking industry are now $270bn a year — 10 per cent of operating costs.
To help save some of this money, Lombard can even provide the simple code needed to program an anti-money laundering robot. Test it out at http://www.quitebasic.com/:
10 ARRAY A
20 LET A=”Colombia”
30 LET A=”Mexico”
40 LET A=”Panama”
50 LET A=”Russia”
60 LET A=”Iran”
70 LET A=”Syria”
80 LET A=”Sudan”
90 LET A=”Libya”
100 INPUT “Which country did the money come from?”; C
110 INPUT “Do you actually know the source?”; S
120 INPUT “Are you sure?”; T
200 FOR J=1 TO 8
210 IF C=A[J] AND S<>”Yes” AND T=”Not really” THEN LET R=”Oh, heck!”
220 NEXT J
230 IF R<>”Oh, heck!” THEN LET R=”Phew!”
230 PRINT R
Brexit’s chain reaction
Some companies should be more Brexit-proof than most. Northgate, supplier of white vans, for example. Sports Direct, supplier of their drivers’ attire.
To this list, given the 61 per cent of over-65s who voted to leave the EU, might be added McCarthy & Stone, builder of retirement homes — except that it says it took until November for trading to normalise, post-referendum.
Why? Because its buyers rely on selling their existing homes, which can involve long property chains — containing gloomy Remoaners. McCarthy had to offer “higher incentives” to get the chains moving. Another hidden cost of a failed European project?