Those of a certain age will remember when Sainsbury’s and M&S were of a type.
They were middle class, a shade pricier than some rivals, but aspirational, the favoured stores of middle England.
What sometimes hurt them is that they knew that, and, at different points in their history, came undone through a certain arrogance it encouraged.
There’s not longer any room for such complacency. Both face incredibly tough operating environments, populated by competitors that didn’t even exist when they lorded it over the high street.
But with their reporting half year results on consecutive days it’s very clear that Sainsbury’s is coping better with the chill wind on planet retail than Marks is.
The headline numbers don’t look pretty: A 9 per cent fall in profit for the 28 weeks to September 23 and a sharp slowdown in sales growth – up 0.6 per cent in the second half of that against 2.3 per cent in the first.
There are at least explanations for the former. Sainsbury’s has taken in Argos, which loses money in the early part of its financial year. It’s no surprise that, having been consolidated into its new parent’s numbers, those of Argos took the gloss off the family car.
If Christmas goes well, there’ll be a lick of polish when the company releases its finals.
Of far more concern to the City were those sales figures. They were at least in positive territory, but the trend is worrying, and suggests that Sainsbury’s is getting a winter cold, with Aldi and Lidl continuing to grow and Morrisons and Tesco once again firing on all cylinders.
The company doesn’t appear complacent. The results statement paints a picture of an active business. It is expanding click and collect (a service that can work for both consumer and store) into more of its convenience outlets, it’s growing its order fulfilment space and opening lots more Argos concessions in its stores.
Then there are the little things that Sainsbury’s is rather good at. A recent initiative saw the launch of an app to enable drivers with disabilities to pre-book assistance when refuelling their cars. That could be handy for those of us with impairments. Petrol station forecourts are not friendly places.
The challenge for Sainsbury’s is that its shoppers are struggling in an unhealthy economy. They are governed by sick politicians who are likely to make that worse. Against that backdrop price is more important than ever, and serves as a driver for Aldi and Lidl.
Initiatives like the app hold out the prospect of putting an alternative currency in customers’ pocket: Goodwill. Even in troubled times, it shouldn’t be under estimated.
But the outlook is fuzzy, and an awful lot is riding on Christmas (so what’s new). At least Sainsbury’s is still at the gym, and on the treadmill, by contrast to Marks, which is in the GP’s surgery in the hopes of getting a prescription.