This week, retail investors finally got the first chance to buy shares in The Hut Group, the giant online retailer and Internet shopping outsourcer for giant companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola.
To say its arrival stirred up excitement in the City was an understatement.
Firstly, it’s a major coup for London that this Manchester born and bred giant chose to list here rather than the US.
Let’s hope others follow.
But, patriotism aside, it also offers investors rare “pureplay” access to the profits from online shopping – a phenomenon that was massive before Covid, and has since accelerated phenomenally.
Around 6.5 million households tried grocery shopping online for the first time since covid-19 hit.
Even if you think many people will go back to High Street shopping and retail malls (and some undoubtedly will), it would be extraordinary if many don’t stick with digital too.
This is why Hut’s shares have got off to such an eyewatering start. Up 30% from the already-high opening price at one stage, they reached a stock market value of £5.4 billion – nearly £1 billion more than the company had hoped for.
Even after yesterday's across the board sell-off, the shares floated at 500p are at 574p - comfortably ahead of their start point.
I’ve no doubt this is a tremendous business. Its tech is highly regarded and there’s understandable excitement around the small but fast-growing outsourcing business, which has been dubbed a mini-Ocado.
However, it has chosen to float in what feels like an extremely toppy market for tech stocks, which have had an incredible run up this year.
If you fear a correction in the market, you might be worried Hut could be destined for a steep sell off.
But fear not, for there are other ways of playing the e-commerce boom. And not just with Ocado – another richly-priced tech stock - or the obvious retailers themselves (Boohoo, Asos and the like)
Here are six to consider:
After you’ve clicked for your online order, someone has to deliver it to you. Wincanton runs the lorries and vans that will get them from the warehouse to your door.
Its share price crashed badly during Covid because it has big businesses trucking petrol and building materials around the country. At a time when construction sites were closed and nobody was allowed to drive anywhere, that wasn’t good for business.
But its online delivery work for shops was trading strongly, particularly once social distancing restrictions were lifted to allow its two-men-and-a-van operations to resume delivering furniture and other goods for customers like Ikea and M&S.
Wincanton also runs warehouses for big companies’ online logistics, recently winning a contract to run one of these “dark stores” for Waitrose
It’s also working smarter to help smaller online businesses distribute out of spare space in its warehouses – a potentially big market ahead.
The shares might take a while to recover, particularly as it had to axe the dividend this year, disappointing shareholders who have seen numerous struggles at the business over the years.
However, with previous problems mainly fixed, Wincanton looks like a decent long-term bet.
Another arguably undervalued business, DS Smith is the biggest cardboard packaging company on the London market.
And if your house is anything like mine, you’ll know how much cardboard is generated by our newfound passion for online shopping.
DS Smith makes boxes for Amazon and most of the other major online stores and operates globally.
What I like about it is that it is also investing hugely in tech, bringing in sophisticated recycling and technology to reduce the size of its packaging and reduce the amount needed.
It is trying to convince supermarkets to use more recyclable packaging in foods, too. That looks an uphill battle to my mind; plastics are cheaper and will rule the roost until there is more government intervention. But DS Smith is right to be pursuing that market.
Unlike Wincanton, it has resumed its dividend after seeing its business hit initially by Covid and volumes have been increasing through August.
The shares have not recovered much since Covid, and are currently trading at 269p against 386p in January.
The problem here is that, as well as giving you good exposure to online retail, DS Smith is also a huge player in many other sectors – manufacturing, for example. Its shares serve as a proxy for the global economy.
If you can see through the current economic malaise, however, it’s easy to see now as being a good time to jump into DS Smith at a historically low price.
Talk to most brokers about Clipper and they tend to get a faraway look in their eyes. The shares have been on an absolute tear in the past year, and figures recently showed why, as it surged through its £500 million revenue target.
Like Wincanton, Clipper is a third party logistics company, but it specialises entirely on retailers. It also says it serves as a consultant and adviser to its clients, as well as just getting their goods from A to B.
A big part of its business is running the trickiest element of e-shopping – returns.
At a bricks and mortar shop, people try the item before they buy it, so returns are a relatively small deal. Online, people will buy five items, keep one and return the rest. That amount of stock coming in is a nightmare for retailers, taking up space, and time to process and prep to be sold again.
Clipper takes the stress away by doing it all for the customer.
Its shares are very richly priced, though, currently trading at 433p against 292p before covid.
A good business, sure, but perhaps new entrants to this stock have missed the boat.
Time was, industrial warehouses were the Cinderella sector of the property world. Folks looking for fast bucks and glamour went into sexier retail and office markets.
In a covid world, those glory hunters don’t look so clever now.
Warehouses, meanwhile, have been resurrected by the e-commerce boom as the likes of Amazon need them to house their fulfilment centres.
Segro is the current name of the old Slough Estates. It was originally the painfully bland Slough industrial estate that was home to Ricky Gervais’s Wernham Hogg in The Office.
It’s moved on since, now spanning the UK and Europe to own and rent out giant warehouse units to logistics specialists, retailers and wholesalers in all sectors.
Its buildings are set around big urban centres and transport hubs. A large proportion of its growth is coming from e-commerce and its share price has rocketed accordingly.
The company is structured as a real estate investment trust so its shares are a combination of the net asset value of its properties and future profits and dividends.
Where shares in shop and office developers generally trade at a discount to their net asset value, Segro is currently trading at a premium of 33%.
For my money, that’s rich. Particularly as, due to its size, it is diversified away from the e-commerce play that we are hunting for.
I’m also a bit dubious about the merits of European e-commerce investments as continental merchants and customers are years behind the UK and populations are often more widely spread, making it a tougher business.
However, if you’re looking to tuck away a stock for years to come, you can’t argue with the fundamental strengths of Segro.
Oh, and did I mention the dividend? As most other companies have been cutting or scrapping divis altogether (Wincanton included) Segro just upped its payout by 10%. Its muscular share price means that’s only a yield of around 2%, but that’s better than you’ll get at the building society.
If you live in London or Birmingham, chances are some of your online shopping has spent at least part of its life in a LondonMetric warehouse.
This REIT specialises in owning warehouses used by the likes of M&S, DFS and Primark that are close to the customer – in or around urban areas. Think New Malden or Dagenham.
The thinking is this: as we demand same day or next day delivery, retailers will increasingly need to have stock local to where we live.
Supply of buildings and plots that can be turned into warehouses in and around London is falling at a rate of about 1% a year due to the push to build more flats and houses. But every year, demand is rising exponentially.
Low supply, high demand. What’s not to like?
LondonMetric's 200 buildings aren’t all in logistics. It also has long let buildings used for supermarkets and store such as Aldi and Lidl, plus some DIY and homewares operators such as B&Q and Dunelm.
It has a progressive dividend policy and is currently yielding 3.8% - that’s generous compared with Segro.
The company’s NAV per share slipped back slightly after a big acquisition last year which included some sites it will be selling but its shares still trade at a hefty 29% premium to NAV. That’s almost as big as Segro’s, despite Segro being in the FTSE-100 and attracting far more tracker fund share investors.
Still, the scarcity value of its properties make this definitely a stock to consider.
Tritax Big Box
Another REIT, Tritax Big Box has the biggest development pipeline (known as a landbank) of big warehouses in the UK. It’s probably as close as you can get to a stock market version of Prologis, the highly feted, privately-owned e-commerce warehousing specialist.
The company floated nearly seven years ago and has 61 of its huge warehouses rented out to everyone from Amazon and Ocado to Tesco, Sainsbury and Screwfix. It’s not just retailers who use it for their e-commerce; Unilever, L’Oreal and Kellogg’s have Tritax warehouses.
Like others in the sector, demand was so high for its sheds that it managed to collect 97% of its rent through the last two quarters. Most property companies would have killed for such stable income.
Tritax’s warehouses are huge, sometimes as much as 25 metres high. They tend to be by key motorway junctions on agricultural land. That means they’re cheaper than the properties LondonMetric owns but probably far easier to come by, giving it less of a compelling supply-demand safety net.
That said, with lettings up 34% in the first half of this year, demand is so strong for these huge sheds that supply is still short. Many are let even before they are built.
The reason big warehouses – what some call megasheds – are popular is not just so that the customer can store every size and colour of items their online clients may desire.
Crucially, they’re also big enough to fit in the largest, most sophisticated robotic equipment used to to sort, pick and pack products. And in ecommerce, automation and efficiency are the name of the game, particularly when Covid restrictions mean human interaction has to be kept to a minimum.
Some of Tritax’s sheds are so high they can have multiple levels of storage.
Increasingly, the really big sites are putting their datacentres in the building, too.
The beauty of attracting heavily automated customers is that, after spending in some cases hundreds of millions of pounds installing the latest equipment, the tenants are unlikely to up sticks and leave. Leases are commonly being signed at 20 to 25 years, sometimes even 30 years.
For those hunting for value in the sector, Tritax could be your answer.
It is paying a decent dividend, yielding over 4% and its shares are valued at almost exactly the same as its NAV – no hefty premiums here.
That is likely to be due to a mixture of the lack of rarity value, a track record of doing hefty fundraisers through share issues and a shortage of sales of properties. Investors like to see property companies sell assets at high prices and spend the money on building new properties. A few more sales and the share price could bounce nicely.
In short, my guess is these are all decent businesses to invest in and enjoy for the next decade or more. For the best value growth, my money would be on Wincanton and Tritax Big Box.