Australian retail giant Woolworths Group reported solid FY23 results on Wednesday, showcasing the supermarket sector’s resilience in the face of dropping consumer spend. Earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) from the company’s Australian supermarkets rose 19.1 per cent over the financial year to $2.8 billion, while EBIT in the New Zealand Countdown business fell 7.4 per cent to $249 million. Discount department store chain Big W, meanwhile, saw earnings jump 165 per cent to $
t to $145 million. Woolworths Group chief executive Brad Banducci noted that Australia and New Zealand’s ongoing battle with inflation hit both customers and staff hard this year. As a result, Woolworths experienced an increased level of theft in FY23, and is looking to technology to solve the problem. Particularly, Banducci noted that the New Zealand business saw another “spike” in theft in the second half. New Zealand’s inflation rate has remained higher than Australia’s for some time, hovering between 9 and 12 per cent over the past year. According to Woolworths’ managing director of supermarkets Nancy Davis, the supermarket business is investing in ‘scan assist’ technology, which can tell if items in a customer’s trolley have been scanned or not, and alert them, as well as installing double gates to provide a further barrier to exit. “We’re very conscious that we don’t want to slow down our checkouts for the 99 per cent of customers who do the right thing, so we’re very focused on making sure that [staff] intervention in our self-checkout areas is as low as possible,” Davis said. Leah Weckert, CEO of rival Australian supermarket Coles, noted on Tuesday that higher levels of theft has become an industry issue, and is not confined to the Australian market. Beating the productivity malaise Beyond the group’s impressive financial results, Banducci also noted that it has returned most if not all of its productivity metrics to pre-Covid levels. “There’s a lot of conversation right now in the economy about this productivity malaise, [and] I think our biggest achievement in the year was actually getting back to what good looks like, which will provide a real foundation for our results in FY24,” Banducci told analysts. This improvement in the basics was underpinned by upgraded distribution centres, Banducci explained, and directly led to higher customer satisfaction metrics. For Woolworths, like all retailers, customers are key. “We’re thinking about customers: are we retaining customers, are we building bonds with them, and are we building loyalty?,” Banducci said. “And yes, we did that.” Worker safety in the spotlight On a call with analysts to discuss its financial results, Woolworths also faced tough questions over the death of two staff members at work during the reporting period.One died in a pallet collapse incident at a Sydney distribution centre, and another, a cleaning contractor, died of injuries at a Newcastle store. Bank of America’s David Errington pushed Woolworths to explain how, after billions of dollars invested into its distribution centres and stores, it could fail at providing the “basic essentials” of worker safety. Banducci acknowledged that while the business has safety protocols in place, that doesn’t excuse the failures, and said thatWoolworths wants to learn from both incidents. “There were extenuating circumstances, but we also feel accountable for what happened,” Banducci said. “Every piece of physical equipment [we own] has now been reviewed, because both of these [deaths] were equipment related. It’s very clear to us that the automated DCs, if you follow the right processes, are safer.” Woolworths Group’s management team bonus has been cut by 10 per cent as a “minimum starting point” as a reflection of the incidents. On the margin The business was also pressed on its “very high” gross margins, which grew to 26.8 per cent in FY23, given the current economic climate and customers’ need for higher value. Banducci noted that it was important to balance value for customers with fair wages for staff. “[We have] to reconcile those back into an overall result, and there are positives and negatives there, as you can imagine,” Banducci said.