Outlook: Wounded in the trolley wars

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The Independent Online
Profits warnings at Safeway have become a bit like buses. You wait around expecting one for ages and then several come along all at once. Three in this case - and what corkers they have been too. Just over a year ago the City was expecting Safeway to make profits of more than pounds 500m this financial year. Now those predictions have been cut to just pounds 350m, a reduction of 30 per cent.

The generous view is that Safeway's travails now are akin to those suffered by Sainsbury a couple of years ago - sluggish sales, problems with product availability and management complacency. In truth there are distinct differences, which may make it difficult for Safeway to emulate Sainsbury's recovery. While Sainsbury's always had a strong brand and a good store portfolio, Safeway has neither. Its brand name is by comparison minor league and its stores are worse.

And then there is the management. Colin Smith and his team seem to be all at sea, casting around for ideas. David Webster, the chairman, and the last of the Gulliver triumvirate which put Argyll on the map, seems an increasingly peripheral and disinterested figure. Indeed there could be some significant in the fact that the top three in this company are all finance directors by background, more used to financial wizardry than the cut and thrust of trading in one of Britain's most competitive industries.

Tesco, by contrast, has a marketing man at the helm - Terry Leahy. Asda is run by a highly regarded fast moving consumer goods expert - Allan Leighton. Both are a decade younger than the Safeway top brass, who continue to maintain a comfy office in Mayfair while the real business is going on in Hayes.

No wonder the company has become the subject of persistent bid speculation. With M&S ruling itself out, Asda still represents the most likely potential partner for Safeway. But while Safeway may need Asda, it is not clear Asda needs Safeway. Asda might be able to add some value with its lower priced offer and more dynamic management. But many Safeway shops are too small for Asda's non-food lines. Besides, Asda will be picking up market share anyway with the number four in the pack struggling.

Even if Asda were keen, regulatory hurdles could well prove insurmountable. The Somerfield-Kwik Save merger, which is unlikely to be blocked on competition grounds, only makes matters worse. Regulators may be prepared to allow one grocery merger through on the nod, but not two. Safeway faces the prospect of lagging further and further behind in the trolley wars - a distant fourth to the new "Big Three." It may not be entirely management's fault but the City won't be forgiving all the same. Expect more top level executive changes over the next six months.