Sainsbury's results look weak at first glance, but are actually pretty strong

Total sales increased 3.3 per cent.

Sainsbury’s has announced that, during the 12 weeks to 08 June 2013,  total sales (inc. VAT ex fuel) increased 3.3 per cent, with LFLs up 0.8 per cent.  While representing the grocer’s weakest LFL performance in over three years, when put into context this is another strong update from Sainsbury’s. LFL growth has been delivered against tough comparatives – with the same period in 2012 coinciding with the Jubilee – and, more importantly, against wider market trends, with the grocer continuing to outperform key rivals: Morrisons and Tesco. Investment in its well balanced brand proposition continues to have strong traction among hard-pressed British consumers in a polarised market.

Sainsbury’s is getting a number of things very right. Most notable has been investment into own-label architecture, which has afforded it authority to flex its offer in accordance to broadening consumer demands and capabilities. Indeed, both its premium Taste the Difference and mid-tier by Sainsbury’s sub-brands achieved strong growth during this period. This private label investment has been complemented strongly by clever, targeted promotional activity, with its Brand Match scheme being supported by more creative campaigns such as ‘Feed Your Family’ and targeted promotions such through Nectar and via coupon-at-till.  Collectively, this well-aligned own label and promotional activity is somewhat insulating Sainsbury’s in a climate where consumer loyalty is fickle and the hard discounters are excelling.

At the same time, Sainsbury’s continues to display pro-activity in capitalising on opportunities specific to the business and wider trends in the grocery market.  A focus on convenience and online, as well boosting sales in the short term is leaving the business strongly positioned for the next decade. Elsewhere, its non-food offer is relatively immature compared to its supermarket competitors; sales here continue to grow at more than twice the rate of food, highlighting the future scope for growth here.

When viewed in context, despite more subdued LFL growth, this performance can only be seen as providing further evidence in favour of Sainsburys’ current strategic focuses. While Morrisons and Tesco are both investing heavily to turn around their fortunes, the real short-term threat to Sainsbury’s will continue to come from the discounters at one end and Waitrose at the other. In response, it is important that Sainsbury’s continues to be proactive in widening its appeal, strongly leveraging private label and investing in creative promotional investment. 

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war