Sainsbury chief calls for longer Sunday trading

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Sir Peter Davis, the chief executive of J Sainsbury, reopened the debate on Sunday trading laws yesterday when he said supermarkets should be allowed to stay open for longer in the run-up to Christmas.

Reporting an upbeat trading statement alongside a claim that Sainsbury's is taking customers from Tesco, Sir Peter said longer trading hours would lead to less crowding in the busy days before Christmas. "There was a real issue at Christmas especially with the Sunday being so close to Christmas Day this year. Customers expect you to be open and it would be nice to have a bit of flexibility. Even on that last Sunday people were coming in and expecting to be able to buy their turkeys and that can make life difficult. We'd settle for another couple of hours." Currently trading is restricted to six hours.

The comments came as J Sainsbury reported a buoyant update on its performance over Christmas. Underlying sales in the six weeks to 5 January, were up by 6.8 per cent, if petrol is excluded. This is similar to the performance reported by William Morrison last week and puts the pressure on Tesco and Safeway, which report today.

Sir Peter said customer numbers in its third quarter were up by 5.5 per cent on the same period last year, helped by store refurbishments and extensions. "We've now stopped much of the rot," he said. "In October and November we had gains from Tesco. It's the first time in years."

Sir Peter said the figures represented the third consecutive quarter that Sainsbury's had reported like-for-like sales growth of 6 per cent or more. The average spend by customers was also up, by 1.5-2 per cent, Sir Peter said.

He said it was "difficult to read" whether the market indicated a slowdown in consumer spending. "There was no evidence at Christmas that customers were cutting back."

UBS Warburg moved its stance on Sainsbury's shares from "hold" to 'buy" and upgraded its 2002 profit forecasts by 3 per cent to £620m, before exceptional items.

Sainsbury's shares closed 8p lower at 364.5p.