The structural changes in retail remain a challenge and an opportunity. Excess capacity of physical space coupled with subdued consumer confidence are adding to sales and margin pressure. In addition, a number of key operational costs continue to grow ahead of inflation. Our response is to build brands which remain consistently appealing to our customers so that we create more differentiated, valuable and long-term relationships with them. We continue to innovate in the products and services that we offer. Alongside this we are challenging and empowering Partners to seize opportunities to create significantly more value for our business.
Differentiation on products
In John Lewis & Partners, we saw our strongest sales growth in areas in which we have made the greatest investment. We launched our second season of own-brand Womenswear following the full redesign of our range last year; own-brand Womenswear sales have grown 5.7%. In Beauty, we also outperformed the market by 8.6%. In Home, we are redesigning every part of our range and have started with the relaunch of Upholstery. Having grown the size of our Home design team by 50% over the last 18 months, we will launch 3,000 new own-brand products this autumn. In addition, this month sees the relaunch of own-brand Menswear and the launch of our first ever own-brand Gift Food.
In Waitrose & Partners, we have completed 47 category reviews, with strong improvements in profitability and availability across these categories. We also launched our largest ever summer food range - Scrumptious Summer, which consisted of 200 products. Demonstrating our commitment to reducing waste, we trialled Waitrose Unpacked. Following a positive response from customers, we are extending the trial and introducing elements of it into three more shops. Looking ahead, we will complete our category reviews and will relaunch Waitrose 1 with 150 new product lines.
Investment in service excellence
We made additional service enhancements and have seen improvements in customer satisfaction ratings in Waitrose & Partners whilst customer experience ratings in John Lewis & Partners have remained high. To improve the speed and convenience of online shopping, John Lewis & Partners’ customers can now return purchases to Waitrose & Partners delivery drivers at the same time as they receive their groceries. Our Click & Collect service is loved by our customers, giving us confidence to explore this area further. As such, we have trialled the service in six Co-ops and eight Booths shops. We will extend these trials further to 50 Co-op shops before the end of October. In Waitrose & Partners, we have plans to further strengthen our online capabilities this year with our new customer fulfilment centre in Enfield, as we build towards trebling the size of our online grocery operation to a £1bn business over the next three years. In mid-May, we announced a proposal to explore opportunities around automated online fulfilment with Today Development Partners (TDP). We have recently decided not to continue with that relationship and will instead pursue our online ambitions utilising existing expertise across the Partnership.
We continued to roll out several advisory services including the trial of our Beauty Studio and rollout of personal styling experiences in John Lewis & Partners, which saw women's personal styling sales increase 34%. Building on this, we will launch a new men’s personal styling experience at our Oxford Street flagship store this autumn. Our ambition to create a truly differentiated business in home improvement was supported by the expansion of Home Solutions and its integration with Opun. In October we will launch our first World of Design in our Peterborough shop, bringing together our Home Stylist expertise in one new dedicated space at the heart of our Home departments. We will also explore how shops can become ever more meaningful in our customers’ lives as Partner-led services and immersive experiences from both our brands will take centre stage on every floor in a new concept in Southampton from November onwards. In Waitrose & Partners, we are trialling a new deli proposition in 10 branches which offers antipasti, unique charcuterie and cured meats.
Investment in Partners
We invested significantly in leadership development, with more than 7,500 people managers across the Partnership attending a series of one day “Empowered Leadership” events in May to support our service ambitions. This marked the start of a broader programme of training for people managers. In Waitrose & Partners, we are building the passion and expertise of our Partners through the Waitrose School of Food and in John Lewis & Partners we are developing our first John Lewis Service Academy, equipping customer-facing Partners with what we believe to be the future skills of retail.
We are also expanding our apprenticeship programme, introducing new apprenticeships including Butchery, Fishmonger, Chef Specialisms, Customer Service, Vehicle maintenance and repair, and three senior leadership schemes. Among the apprentices that have completed their programmes in this half year, 83% passed with distinction where that was an achievable grade.
In line with our strategy, we continue to transform our organisation and in the year ahead we will accelerate our move towards ‘one Partnership’, obsessed with our customers. We have also made a number of divestments of shops and assets in the first half of the year.
Transforming sharing of knowledge and power
Alongside organisational change we are also focused on transforming our sharing of knowledge and power. In April, the Partnership Council, which is a body of democratically elected representatives that represent the views of Partners across the business, voted in support of changes to the Constitution which will ensure that the way in which power is shared across the business is fit for purpose in the future. These changes included the appointment of two new independent directors and a new enhanced role for President of Partnership Council.
In May the Partnership Council also unanimously agreed changes to our pension scheme. This concluded a year-long review and consultation with Partners. Our non-contributory final salary defined benefit section of our pension scheme will therefore close to future accrual next year and will be replaced by a defined contribution pension offer that is market-leading in retail.