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Wesfarmers Ltd or Woolworths Limited – which is the best buy?

Wesfarmers Ltd (ASX: WES) (as owner of Coles), Woolworths Limited (ASX: WOW) and Metcash Limited (ASX: MTS) have traditionally battled it out for share of supermarket customer spend.

However a new battleground is unfolding in the home improvement/hardware sector which pits the incumbent Bunnings (owned by Wesfarmers) against the new entrant Masters (owned by Woolworths in a joint venture with U.S. home improvement giant Lowe’s). While there will likely be many more twists and turns in this battle, here are some facts about how the two measure up against each other so far.

Bunnings

For the half-year just ended, the Wesfarmers Home Improvement division which incorporates Bunnings reported a 10.4% increase in revenues to $4.434 billion and an 8.5% increase in earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to $562 million. Same store sales growth was also a pleasing 7.2%.

Bunnings currently has a network of 318 stores made up of 218 Warehouse format stores, 65 smaller format stores and 35 trade centre stores. During the half, five new stores (net) were opened with a further 15 under construction.

Return on Capital grew to 27.6%, compared with 25.5% in the previous corresponding half.

Masters

The Woolworths Home Improvement division reported sales revenue of $796 million and losses before interest and tax of $64.4 million for the half year.

These revenues and earnings were split $393 million for the Masters brand and $403 million for Home Timber and Hardware brand. At the EBIT level, the divisions reported a $71.9 million loss and a $7.5 million profit respectively.

Woolworths now operates 38 Masters stores, with these stores now having operated for an average of 15 months. The company remains on track to meet its goal of having 49 stores open by the end of June 2014.

Foolish takeaway

While in one respect Woolworths has proven itself to be a superb retailer when viewed through the prism of its all-important food and liquor businesses, its performance at operating Dick Smith Holdings Ltd (ASX: DSH) puts a dark cloud over management’s ability to effectively run a retailer outside of its core competency of food and liquor.

Wesfarmers is definitely winning the hardware war at present but should Masters prove itself a viable opponent to Bunnings then it has the potential to add meaningfully to Woolworths’ future earnings.

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Motley Fool contributor Tim McArthur does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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