John Lewis says it’s been squeezed between rising costs, due to the weakness of sterling, and falling prices due to ferocious competition.
The partnership’s “never knowingly undersold” promise means it has price-matched its rivals all the way to break even.
The truth is the partnership is not in anything like the sticky situation that perhaps the headline numbers suggest.
Profits have been wiped out largely because the group has prioritised investment (£400-£500m a year) in the business.
Debt has been reduced, cash hoarded.
The group has spent money improving cyber security and data protection and has cut its pension deficit.
All perfectly sensible moves, although the group’s 83,000 staff won’t be banking on a bonus this year.
John Lewis believes it can thrive in a digital age.
It says it’s just going through a period of upheaval and adjustment, as online shopping becomes more popular.
The big idea is to stay relevant and profitable by focusing on service and increasing the “own brand” offering, where the margins are plumper.
As strategies go, not a bad one.
But less easily explained is the partnership’s poor sales performance.
The summer heatwave, England’s World Cup run and the royal wedding had the tills ringing elsewhere.
Not, it would appear, at John Lewis.
The department stores should have been making hay while its rivals - House of Fraser and Debenhams - struggled. Instead they lost money.
Sales at John Lewis fell 1.2%.
In the circumstances that should be cause for concern.
The partnership seems determined to hold onto its 50 department stores.
Unless it arrests the decline in sale, the case for doing so will get weaker.
John Lewis says the outcome of Brexit negotiations makes the future hard to call.