What is it about Sainsbury's?

Another impressive performance.

As expected Sainsbury’s has notched up another impressive performance across its full financial year, with LFL sales up by 1.8 per cent and profit growth in line with City expectations.  

A key driver of this success has been the development of Sainsbury’s own-label architecture, which has afforded it the ability to flex its offer to fragmenting consumer demand which has seen the simultaneous growth of both the value and premium ends of the food market. Its Basics and Taste the Difference sub-brands address the polar ends of the market well, while the re-launch of its mid-tier By Sainsbury’s sub-brand has appealed to shoppers seeking price competitive alternatives to branded products. 

This balanced positioning has been complemented by targeted discounting, that encourages loyalty without widespread damage to margins. Sainsbury’s has notably achieved this through its Brand Match and leveraging its Nectar card programme for sales promotions. Moreover, while Tesco’s Price Promise offers a functional threat to footfall, "value-for-money" is at the heart of the Sainsbury’s DNA, as part of its Live Well for Less push. This is evident in creative campaigns such as "Feed Your Family For A Fiver", that have served to strengthen value credentials.

Taken together, the well segmented range and the targeted promotional activity is insulating Sainsbury’s in a climate where consumer loyalty is fickle and hard discounters are excelling.

Supporting these brand developments has been a store strategy which is suited to emerging market dynamics.  Sainsbury’s has traditionally had less of a focus on hypermarket formats compared to Asda and Tesco and has thus not been as impacted by the more negative performance of these store types. Instead its convenience-led strategy has paid dividends, with sales growing 17 per cent across this format, following the opening of a further 87 convenience stores during the year.

Wider afield, Sainsbury’s is also reaping the rewards for investments in its supply chain and procurement systems. Its close relationships with farmers, which has included an investment of £40 m in Farmer Development Groups since 2006, has ensured it has traceability and integrity. This helped Sainsbury’s avoid being engulfed in the horsemeat scandal, as many of its competitions were. 

Sainsbury’s also has a compelling growth story to tell in other areas of its business. Annual online grocery sales are now approaching £1billion, growing nearly 20 per cent over the year. Elsewhere, its non-food offer is relatively immature compared to its supermarket competitors; its general merchandise and clothing sales continue to grow at more than twice the rate of food, offering future scope for growth. In addition, with the announcement that the it is acquiring Lloyds Banking Group’s 50 per cent shareholding in Sainsbury’s Bank, Sainsbury’s has further opportunities to further leverage its brand loyalty at a time when consumers still lack confidence in core financial institutions.

On the horizon, Sainsbury’s does face both immediate and longer term challenges. Strong comparatives will undoubtedly provide a challenge, particularly considering the wider economic backdrop. Tesco’s resurgence is also a threat, as its own investment programme in own brand, store strategy and price competitiveness gathers pace. More pertinently, rumours of chief executive Justin King’s departure,  have caused some uncertainty among investors. That said for now at least, its proactive approach to evolving shopping trends leaves it ideally placed to make further market share gains.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”