By Rupert Steiner
Christmas is the great leveler for Britain's big four supermarket chains.
The grocery giants update on trading for a similar basket of products, over a similar period in time, providing a perfect snapshot for investors seeking to dodge a FTSE 100 dog or spot a stock market star.
On Wednesday, the UK's second-largest food chain, Sainsbury's (SBRY.LN), posted a worse-than-expected fall in Christmas sales, a day after smaller rival Morrisons (MRW.LN) also disappointed.
Tesco (TSCO.LN), the biggest of the four, updates on Thursday and Walmart-owned ASDA, which is merging with Sainsbury's, will wait until next month to provide details in its quarterly update.
It has been a tough 12-months for retailers in both food and clothing. They have faced a cocktail of changing consumer habits, millennials' aversion to shopping and big Brexit clouds.
Last year, privately-owned department-store group House of Fraser collapsed into administration before being rescued. At Toys "R" Us and electronics retailer Maplin, the shutters came down for good.
Spending on clothing, electronics and gifts is very much discretionary when the going gets tough. But it is a different story for the grocers, which fare better because everyone needs to eat.
READ:Sainsbury sales fall on weakness in nonfood unit ()
The latest grocery market share figures from Kantar Worldpanel, published on Tuesday for the 12 weeks to Dec. 30, 2018, show consumers still spent an extra GBP450m on groceries compared with the same period a year prior.
So what's behind the disappointing updates from Morrisons and Sainsbury's?
On Tuesday, Morrisons said underlying sales for its grocery and wholesale business, excluding fuel, rose 3.6% in the nine weeks to Jan. 6 -- below average forecasts of 4.1% and the 5.6% sales growth seen in the previous quarter. The shares fell as much as 4.8% at one point yesterday.
This was despite sales at its core supermarket business rising 0.6%, which was ahead of forecasts of 0.5%.
Sainsbury's like-for-like sales, excluding fuel, fell 1.1% in the 15 weeks to Jan. 5 -- well below the 0.2% fall forecast by analysts. In the previous quarter, sales had risen 1%.
There was a 0.4% rise in grocery sales offset by a 2.3% fall in general merchandise (clothing, toys and electrical goods). Around three years ago, Sainsbury's snapped up Argos owner Home Retail Group and has been busy cutting costs and integrating the business.
Some analysts believe this has caused two problems -- a distraction among management and issues with poor stock availability. The company denies both.
READ:Tesco's new discount chain will rival Aldi, Lidl ()
Analysts say cost-cutting, which saw the removal of a tier of middle managers with expertise ensuring shelves were kept replenished, was behind availability issues.
Clive Black, an analyst at broker Shore Capital, wrote in a note on Wednesday: "We have noticed that Sainsbury's had poor availability and wider store standards for sometime now, and we are not alone, in our view.
"Such a relatively weak offer is concerning to us as Sainsbury's shoppers tend to be that little bit wealthy and arguably more discerning about standards. Accordingly, we continue to wonder, we may be wrong, if Sainsbury's changes to its labor process hasn't delivered all that was desired and we worry about its absolute and relative performance.
"We also posit that Sainsbury's may be erroneously cutting itself to a profit outcome, albeit we know Messrs. Coupe [chief executive] and O'Byrne [finance director] would robustly resist such a claim."
Mike Coupe said on Wednesday: "There has been a general sort of down trading, so people have been very, very careful in the way that they spent their money.
"We can see that reflected in our grocery business where in effect we saw people down trading and being more careful in the items they bought that meant the average item price was lower than we would have expected.
"So there is definitely caution out there, and of course as we go through the next period of uncertainty, I suspect that will continue to be reflected in the way that customers behave."
Morrisons has highlighted a change in consumer behavior in November, amid uncertainty over Britain leaving the EU. CEO David Potts said: "Going into November there was just a sense that customers were a bit more cautious."
It has a rapidly expanding wholesale business, supplying products to Amazon (AMZN) and McColl's Retail Group and it was disappointment in this division, which weighed on the shares Tuesday.
The firm has been going through a transformation program under Potts after trouble integrating rival Safeway in 2003, which meant it was late launching convenience stores and online. It also failed to modernize, having outdated systems that meant, until recently, its supermarkets had to order stock by pen and paper.
READ:UK supermarkets post record holiday sales: Kantar ()
Over recent years all the big four grocers have had to face two big hurdles -- changing consumer habits and competition from the discount retailers.
While Tesco has undergone a marked recovery under CEO Dave Lewis, its update on Thursday is likely to show it has not been immune to these challenges.
Tesco, along with its rivals, has seen an impact from shoppers heading to budget chains Aldi and Lidl, which offer less selection but cheaper products.
Consultancy Kantar Worldpanel () said two-thirds of all British households shopped at either Aldi or Lidl over the 12 weeks to Dec. 30, resulting in their highest-ever combined Christmas market share of 12.8%.
They have also hurt ASDA, which historically set itself apart on price and little else.
Shoppers have also changed the way they buy their groceries, replacing one weekly shop with multiple visits to smaller convenience stores to save waste and money.
This has benefited chains such as the Co-op, which has a skew to smaller local shops and has hurt ASDA, which mainly has larger warehouse-style stores.
There has also been a big shift to shoppers buying groceries online where Ocado (OCDO.LN) , which has no stores, is a strong player.
-Rupert Steiner; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 09, 2019 10:01 ET (15:01 GMT)
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