Business View: King must rescue Sainsbury's before its sell-by date

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The Independent Online

In five years and 11 months, Sainsbury's tills will fall silent. Its car parks will be empty and its aisles deserted. This apocalyptic scenario is what would happen to the once-great supermarket group if its current slide in market share continued unchecked.

Sainsbury's is losing shoppers by the trolley-load. The latest figures from market research company TNS show that, in the most recent 12- week period, the company's market share fell 0.6 of a percentage point to 15.3 per cent. (Its average share so far in 2004 stands at 15.7 per cent.) So, at its current rate of decline - as it loses customers to Tesco and Asda - it will take just under six years for Sainsbury's market share to hit zero.

I am being flippant, of course. Retailers' share of the market doesn't just whittle down to nothing and companies don't vanish into thin air. But it demonstrates just how little time Sainsbury's new chief executive, Justin King, has left to turn the company around.

Mr King will unveil his turnaround plan for the company on 19 October. As we report on page 1, he will deal with some of the operational mess left behind by his predecessor, Sir Peter Davies. But a more fundamental issue awaits Mr King: defining just what Sainsbury's is.

The supermarket is stuck in the no man's land between value supermarkets Tesco and Asda and the more upmarket retailers Waitrose and M&S Food. So where should it go?

Upmarket is my bet, for two reasons. First, Sainsbury's hasn't a cat in hell's chance of competing with Tesco and Asda on price. They are simply too powerful and I dare say that if Sainsbury's attempted such a move then it would vanish much sooner than the five years, 11 months I gave it at the start of this column. The second reason to move upmarket is history. Before it lost the plot, Sainsbury's had a reputation for quality. Not pay-though-your-nose luxury, but decent food at reasonable prices. If Mr King can solve the structural and cultural problems, this may be his best chance of reversing the company's decline.

To do this, Sainsbury's may first have to vanish - from the FTSE. Performing the surgery needed to bring the company back to heath will be difficult enough, but in the full glare of the City, it could be nearly impossible. Therefore, Sainsbury's best chance of survival may now lie as a private company.

No scapegoats at BA

The headlines were dramatic. "Three BA directors under threat over Heathrow chaos"; "BA directors' jobs on the line over Heathrow shambles"; and The Independent on Sunday's "Heads to roll over BA cancellations".

But a month after what was described as one of the worst days in British Airways' history - when 8,000 passengers were left stranded - all directors are still safely in their jobs.

After a detailed review of what went wrong, chief executive Rod Eddington has concluded that, yes, the company mucked up big time but, no, despite earlier indications, no one should be fired. It would be easy to criticise this decision, especially after Mr Eddington and his advisers dropped some jumbo-sized hints that execs would be sacked. Mike Street, BA's director of operations, who has been with the group for more than 40 years, was singled out as the person most likely to get the chop.

But sacking execs is the easy option in a crisis. The City and many BA customers were baying for blood after the appalling Monday when over 30 flights were cancelled, and the instinct of most company bosses would be to find a scapegoat to appease the detractors - in the hope that it would take the heat off. Instead, Mr Eddington and his team are trying to sort out the problems. BA's shareholders and customers may not get the blood they are lusting for, but they should eventually gain from Mr Eddington's pragmatism.

clayton.hirst@independent.co.uk

Jason Nissé is away.

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