David Parkin on the sadness of a fading old friend

WILL the last person in Morrisons please walk out past the empty shelves, leave your trolley in the trolley park and don’t forget to take your pound coin out of the slot.

I used to enjoy the experience of a shopping trip to Morrisons.

The cheery staff, aisles bustling with shoppers and shelves laden with enticing fresh food.

Now a trip to my local supermarket is like visiting a rest home to see an ailing old friend.

The Bradford-based group was once the lively new kid on the block which gatecrashed the comfy closed shop enjoyed by Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

A Northern upstart that did things a different way.

It had its own farms, its own butchers – even its own trawlers to catch the fish its fishmongers lovingly arranged on ice on the counters in its stores.

The late Sir Ken Morrison, who built the business from a butter and egg stall on Rawson Market in Bradford started by his parents, wanted to recreate the market experience within the stores and so each one had a ‘Market Street’ complete with butchery counter, fishmonger, cheese counter and bakery.

Many scoffed at this rather quaint practice and many dismissed Wm Morrison Supermarkets’ takeover of the much larger Safeway chain in 2004.

It took time to sort things out but Sir Ken and his team gritted their teeth, got the job done and Morrisons became Britain’s fourth biggest grocery chain, nipping at the heels of its rivals.

Sir Ken took great pride in being described as a “grocer”.

The people that now own Morrisons probably don’t even know what the word means.

Until it was bought by US private equity business Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CD&R) in 2021, Morrisons was listed on the London Stock Exchange.

That proud history stretched back to the 1960s when it floated on the then Leeds stock exchange with the broker Redmayne Bentley, run by my old friend Keith Loudon.

I was chatting to Keith this week – I rang him to thank him for the flowers he sent to celebrate my recent marriage – and his observations were typically pertinent, pithy and powerful.

Morrisons owning its own farms, dairies and fishing boats is now a distant memory.

Sir Ken Morrison always believed it was best to own the shops you sold your own goods in.

What CD&R did after it bought the business in October 2021 was to sell off the shops, warehouses and distribution centres in sale and lease back deals.

The money they raised went to help pay off some of the vast debt they had overloaded the Morrisons balance sheet with – like an overflowing shopping trolley – when they acquired the business.

These American owners might not know what grocer means, but they will be well acquainted with asset stripping.

Since CD&R bought Morrisons it has made a loss of over £1.5bn.

According to Grocery Gazette, recently released documents on Companies House show the supermarket chain was bought by CD&R for £7bn but was hit with significant losses of £1.5bn in the year after the buyout.

As a result, Morrisons took on £6.1bn of debt and has been hammered by large interest repayments, accounting for £400m of the drop in overall losses.

In the year before it was taken over, Morrisons was in Britain’s ‘big four’ supermarkets, and reported a £201m annual profit.

Just a year later it had not just made a significant loss but also lost its place in the ‘big four’ when it was taken over by fast-growing German discounter Aldi.

That can perhaps be explained because Morrisons raised its prices more than any other major supermarket last year sending shoppers scurrying towards its competitors in search of better deals and cheaper prices.

And all of this has meant that the retailer’s credit rating has been downgraded by credit rating agency Moody’s which makes it even tougher for Morrisons to repay its growing debt pile now said to top £7.5bn.

You add rocketing inflation and rising energy costs into the mix and Morrisons is in something of a maelstrom.

It’s no way to run a supermarket.

But then Morrisons’ owners aren’t in the business of running supermarkets.

They are in the business of making money.

But selling a good product at a good price for a good profit isn’t good enough.

There are easier ways to enrich yourself.

Forget a trolley full of goods at the checkout.

And focus on the financial gymnastics on the groaning balance sheet.

My opening line is actually wrong.

I’m sure Morrisons will stagger on.

But I won’t be there to watch it suffer.

I’ll be visiting my local butcher and greengrocer and getting a bit of inspiration – and a cheeky Chardonnay – in Aldi as well.


SPRING is here!

Bunches of daffodils for sale in shops and seasonal fruit and vegetables like rhubarb and spring onions on the shelves.

But don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of confusing a daffodil for a spring onion when you are looking for a garnish for your salad.

I know it sounds hard to confuse the two, but did you read the recent story about Marks & Spencer being forced to apologise for placing daffodils and spring onions next to each other on a store display?

Apparently it sparked concerns that customers could mistakenly eat the poisonous flowers.

‘Ethnobotanist’ and food presenter James Wong tweeted a picture appearing to show bunches of the toxic flower next to spring onions in a seasonal produce display titled “eat well”.

He wrote on Twitter: “Daffodils are the single most common cause of plant-based poisoning as people mistake their bulbs (even cut flower buds) for crops in the onion family.

“Daffodils are filled with microscopic crystals, so biting into one is like swallowing a box of tiny needles. Properly nasty.”

This manufactured drama suggests Mr Wong might currently be a bit short of TV work and looking to raise his profile.

Apparently, if eaten, daffodils can cause vomiting and diarrhoea and irritation to the mouth and throat.

Although I’d suggest that if you are daft enough to eat a daffodil, then vomiting and diarrhoea is the least of your problems.

Have a great weekend.

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