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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 Managing Director of Conlumino

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

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