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Sainsbury's boss Justin King leaves on sour note as trading climate turns nasty

...And the challenges facing successor Mike Coupe look no less daunting

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 leaving 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 big surprise. Sainsbury's did exceptionally well during the same period last year and, as everyone knows (thanks to Morrison's grim profit warning), the trading climate has turned very nasty for grocers.

But we've become so used to King's Sainsbury's defying gravity while his 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 Porter. It's just 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 friendly shops. We shouldn't be dancing on 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 Morrison's or Tesco, which had both been grappling with serious strategic problems before the sector's current bout of winter 'flu struck. 

But there is still a sting in the tail of the Sainsbury's numbers: the online channel grew at a lacklustre 6 per cent while the group has been working to pep up its website in the face of the challenge posed by upmarket, cutting edge, rivals Waitrose and Ocado. 

Wherever Sainsbury's looks there are wolves snapping at its heels.

King saw off bidders and barbarians at his gates and revived a dying business while doing so. A disappointing curtain call shouldn't cloud his achievements. 

But the challenges facing successor Mike Coupe look no less daunting.