Tesco reveals slowing sales growth

TESCO CONFIRMED the recent slowdown in the supermarket sector yesterday when it announced same-store sales growth of 4.8 per cent in the first 14 weeks of the current year.

The figure, though higher than some analysts' estimates, compared with sales growth of 5 per cent announced by Tesco in April.

Announcing the figures at the company's annual meeting yesterday, Tesco's chairman, John Gardiner, said he expected 1998 to be a "challenging" year but said the group's current trading represented a "solid start". Tesco shares rose on the news before closing 3p down at 540p.

Separately, Tesco dismissed suggestions that it had instituted a hiring freeze in its existing supermarkets, as well as closing fish and delicatessen counters if they did not exceed weekly sales targets. Tesco said it was simply adapting its staffing to customer demand. It confirmed that it had shortened the opening hours at some of its pharmacies and hot chicken counters but said this was to reflect the peaks and troughs of customer needs.

"We had pharmacies that were open at 10-11pm at night and they weren't being used, and we had chicken counters open at 7am whereas when people really want them is just before lunch," a spokesman said.

There were a couple of flashpoints at the company's annual meeting. Tesco was accused by one environmental campaigner of "sheer hypocrisy" for planning to build stores on green-field sites while at the same time promising to safeguard the environment.

Earlier, shareholders arriving at the meeting were met by around 10 Welsh farmers who were protesting about the low prices at which they are forced to sell meat to supermarkets.

Elsewhere in the sector shares in Asda were boosted by positive market share figures. According to new industry figures provided by AGB-Taylor Nelson, Asda's share of the packaged grocery market rose by 1.3 per cent to 16.7 per cent.

Tesco is still top with 21.5 per cent, up 0.5 per cent. It is followed by Asda and Sainsbury's, whose share rose only marginally to 16.7 per cent. Safeway's share edged up to 10 per cent.