James Moore: Sainsbury's magician is leaving the stage just as clouds are darkening
Outlook Justin King's abdication party hasn't quite turned into a wake, but there will be a sour note in whichever of Sainsbury's marque champagne brands they serve at his do. It isn't that the 3 per cent fall in fourth-quarter sales at stores open at least a year – like-for-like sales, as they say on Planet Retail – came as a particularly big surprise. Sainsbury's did exceptionally well during the same period last year so the comparatives were tough and, as everyone knows (thanks to Morrisons' grim profit warning), the trading climate has turned very nasty for grocers.
But Sainsbury's has been here before and defied gravity under Mr King. We've become so used to him working his magic while rivals have coughed and spluttered that the bump from the grocer falling to earth seems somehow more painful.
This, after all, is the man who managed to turn in growing sales through thick, thin, and the most brutal economic crisis this country has seen in a generation. He's retail's very own Harry Potter. It's just a shame that Voldemort has stolen his wand just as he's preparing to leave Hogwarts.
The question is how does Sainsbury's respond? The middle class of the supermarket world is getting squeezed as the middle class of Britain goes discount while stopping off at Waitrose for its treats.
Sainsbury's has a bit of Waitrose's sheen of quality, plus largely friendly staff. And we shouldn't be dancing on Mr King's grave because the chain might not even be here were it not for him.
But there may be worse to come. Sainsbury's owns a lower proportion of its estate than its rivals, a legacy of assaults led by those seeking to cash in by forcing it to indulge in "financial engineering" such as selling and leasing back its stores. This, at least in theory, would give it less flexibility to cope with a prolonged price war.
Happily it still starts from a better place than either Morrisons or Tesco, which had both been grappling with grave strategic problems even before the sector's current bout of winter flu struck.
But Sainsbury's online channel grew at a lacklustre 6 per cent. Wherever it looks there are wolves snapping at its heels. Mr King saw off bidders and barbarians at his gates and revived a dying business. A disappointing curtain call shouldn't put a cloud over his achievements.
But the challenges facing successor Mike Coupe look no less daunting than those he faced during some of its darker hours.
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 3 Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
Nepal earthquake in pictures: Photos show devastation caused by 7.8 magnitude earthquake
Nepal earthquake: More than 1,100 killed across four countries and in Mount Everest avalanche
Royal baby: Live updates as the wait continues for Duchess of Cambridge's second child
Hermann Goering's daughter fails to reclaim items looted by Nazi deputy during WWII
Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
iJobs Money & Business
£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...
£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...