Sainsbury's Justin King sees no need for price war on Aldi

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The Independent Online

Sainsbury's posted its first fall in sales for nine years yesterday, as outgoing chief executive Justin King said the market was now growing at its slowest rate since 2005.

But Mr King, who steps down at July's annual meeting, said he did not wish he had left the hot-seat earlier.

"I've still got one more trading statement and then the full-year figures to go," he said. "It would have been a pretty bad show by me, to have missed out a poor quarter or two."

Mr King also made it clear that he sees no need to follow rivals such as Morrisons down the path of sudden steep discounting. "Our own brand costs 20 per cent less than branded goods and now makes up 51 per cent of our sales," he added. "When the customer gets to the checkout with more Sainsbury brands in their basket than they used to, they soon realise that they are saving money."

Sales from stores which have been open at least a year, and excluding petrol, were down 3.1 per cent in the 10 weeks to last Saturday.

That was marginally worse than most analysts had expected, but not as disastrous as some had feared, in the immediate aftermath of Morrisons' figures last week. The shares ended the day 2.5p higher at 313.9p.

Mr King pointed out that the latest 10 weeks' trading had been affected by the weather and the later timing of both Mothering Sunday and Easter.

He said: "Discounters have been around for as long as I have. When I was account manager at Mars in the early 1980s, Kwiksave was a bigger account for us than Tesco.

"What I believe is happening is that customers are more engaged in more than just price. I always said at the start of the downturn that this would not be a race to the bottom on price, and I still believe that."

He also pointed out that Sainsbury's had managed to hold its market share at 17 per cent in the period. It also saw its convenience stores growing at 15 per cent and recording one million transactions a day for the first time.

Mr King said: "Although some economic indicators are showing an improvement in the health of the economy, we expect the outlook for customers to continue to be challenging for the coming year."

Richard Hunter of broker Hargreaves Lansdown pointed out that Sainsbury's shares have fallen 21 per cent in the past six months.

He said: "Investors' general ennui with the sector at present is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Sainsbury's is currently the preferred play, even though the market consensus view comes in at no more than a 'strong hold'."