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. 

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.