P&G buys stake in Ocado to gain customer insight

Procter & Gamble's decision to invest £5m in a 1% stake in home-delivery company Ocado gives it the opportunity to gain customer insight ahead of its rivals.

This is the first time P&G has bought into a retail business, and Ocado, which has yet to turn a profit, could seem like an unusual investment, given that it is best known for selling Waitrose products online.

The John Lewis Partnership handed its 29% stake in Ocado to its pension fund last month, allowing the delivery firm greater freedom to work with companies that compete with John Lewis and Waitrose.

Ocado's chief financial officer and marketing director, co-founder Jason Gissing, said: 'There was some confusion with John Lewis being both a shareholder and supplier, but Ocado has always been independent and this formalises that relationship.' 

Unique shopper knowledge

'If Ocado's relationship with John Lewis is coming to an end, Ocado might be seeking to form other partnerships,' says TNS' consumer insight director, Matt Stalbridge. 'However, I don't think Ocado looks like a serious channel for sales. It would make more sense for research and getting customer information.'

A P&G spokesman refuses to be drawn on its relationship with the delivery company. 'It's early days in terms of defining our work together,' he says. 'We're interested in the unique shopper knowledge available with Ocado and we see its model as a fertile ground for new ideas.'

Moving sales online is an established strategy - web retailers seem to be flourishing in the current economic climate and more manufacturers of electronics, apparel and other goods are now selling directly to consumers online, despite the potential conflicts.

In May, for example, KMI, the umbrella company for brands including Ted Baker, Fish, King of Shaves and Hed Kandi, unveiled its own direct-to-consumer ecommerce site; it now receives about 100,000 visitors a month. If a company the size of P&G followed suit, the potential market would be enormous.

Even suppliers as powerful as P&G are under pressure from retailers, who are cutting prices and introducing own-label products. 'If P&G could find a profitable way to go direct to customers without upsetting retailers, I'm sure it would,' says Stalbridge.

He thinks P&G products are well suited to web sales. 'Online, consumers can't pick up the products, feel or smell them, so the brands that sell well are the ones that people trust. Many of the P&G brands are iconic and have built up strong brand equity.'

Last month a US site was launched that sells only P&G products.  This was taken as an indication that P&G is willing to go head-to-head with its retailers, but in fact theEssentials.com is third-party owned and receives the same pricing and terms as other retailers. Its main offering is hard-to-find spare parts for battery-operated products from brands such as Oral-B, not its beauty or toiletries lines.

Despite P&G's size, it would struggle to offer both the variety and convenience that retailers do. For this reason it's hard to see why consumers would be motivated to buy directly from P&G online, but Ocado's retail insight could be very useful to P&G.

'Day-to-day this means nothing to Ocado,' insists Gissing. 'P&G is just a 1% shareholder, I think it's interested in our consumer and product knowledge.  As a shareholder P&G will receive a weekly trading update, which is preferable to reading it second-hand.' 


Ocado and investment

      Ocado is valued at £500m.

      To date it has raised £295.5m of equity, more than any other European internet start-up.

      John Lewis owns 29%, The Apple Trust owns 12.5% and P&G owns 1%.

      It was launched nine years ago by three ex-Goldman Sachs employees.



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