It will be no surprise to its customers that Made.com’s prospectus arrived late and left a lot to unpack.
Shares in the self-assembly furniture retailer had been trading for more than five hours by the time the public were given a chance to examine the business in detail. An 8 per cent drop from the issue price, which at 200p apiece was at the very bottom of the indicative range, had already suggested some institutional jitters about what they had bought.
And no wonder. Made.com somehow contrived to lose £1.8m in the first three months of 2021.
The prospectus blurb leans heavily on how its model of taking orders before paying suppliers delivers superior cash flow. Yet even the pandemic-fuelled home improvement boom has not been enough to prove a business that in its 11th year of operation has yet to turn an annual profit.
Made.com’s handlers blamed the flop on IPO fatigue. It’s a weak excuse. Dealogic data show that the year to date has been quieter than average for London market floats and, while Deliveroo and Alphawave were both well publicised disasters, plenty of new issues including Moonpig, Trustpilot and Darktrace have headed northwards.
Made.com’s bigger problem is that it is an old-economy play from a sector whose fortunes remain tied to housing transaction volumes and supply chain management.
Furniture is notoriously difficult to sell profitably. Only Ikea has built a global presence in a fragmented market that remains hemmed in by national borders. Swapping a store fleet for a website does not fix inherent fragility of scale and seasonality that pushed companies including MFI, Habitat and ScS Upholstery into administration in 2008 when their suppliers pulled credit insurance.
Success stories since have mostly been marketplaces such as Wayfair, the $33bn-valued sector gorilla. It plugs 22m products from more than 16,000 suppliers into a distribution network that is built to handle the kind of bulky and unwieldy parcels that are a hindrance to its rivals’ delivery times.
Breadth and speed matter because pricing power is weak and customer switching costs are nil. Marketplaces live in fear of Amazon, whose pages are already filled with no-brand Chinese knock-offs, so they try for scale by throwing money at marketing. Wayfair has spent an average of 11 per cent of sales on advertising over the past five years, outspending its bricks-and-mortar rivals approximately fourfold.
The idea behind Made.com and its closest European peer, Frankfurt-listed Westwing, is to offer something more differentiated: a private-label collection in a magazine format that takes cues from Terence Conran. It is a niche helped out over the past year by a drop in marketing expenses as leisure industry closures diverted disposable income to homewares.
Benefits now look to be unwinding — Made.com’s administrative expenses before flotation costs rose 14 per cent year on year in the first quarter — and the formula is unproved in normal times. Westwing warned repeatedly throughout 2019 that ad spending was not boosting sales and entered the pandemic trading below cash value, having slumped more than 90 per cent from its float price in 2018.
Then there is what Made.com calls its “innovative, data led just-in-time supply chain”. It is also unproved. Recent freight line disruption meant lead times were up to eight weeks behind target levels, which pushed the recognition of about £8m of operating earnings from 2020 to 2021. Customers were already being asked to wait up to 16 weeks for delivery and can cancel free of charge at any time. Their requirement for patience has become a meme.
Brent Hoberman, Made.com’s co founder and highest-profile backer, marked the top of the dotcom bubble perfectly in 2000 with the IPO of Lastminute.com. With Made.com his exit was much earlier, coming as part of a refinancing in 2015 that culled most of the board. Taking the company public cuts Hoberman’s remaining stake from 7 per cent to less than 5.5 per cent.
That fellow backers chose this moment to sell down leaves the unavoidable feeling that the market is being delivered less than it bargained for.