The also-rans were... Tesco, of course, was number one. But it wasn't a bad end of year for the multiples fighting to recover. John Wood reports The UK grocery sector could be excused for feeling smug this week as they compared their impressive like for like growth over Christmas with retail in general. And even the weakest had cause to celebrate as Somerfield's results prompted its shares to climb. Most impressive was the Tesco juggernaut which reeled off yet another record set of figures. But one of the strengths it trumpeted, its record non food performance, helped to mask a weakness, according to some analysts. One said: "When you strip out petrol and non food, its performance in grocery was below the sector average." Tesco also emphasised the performance of its international division, with trading space up 45% over the previous year and sales up 50%. But again analysts warned that political uncertainty and economic weakness in several overseas economies could soon cause a setback. Another grocer who did well, particularly at selling petrol, was Morrisons. But even when the 31.8% increase in petrol sales were stripped out, its figures still looked excellent, particularly when it is noted Morrisons closed for one more day than its competitors. Chairman Sir Ken Morrison pointed out: "Our staff worked long and hard, earning a well deserved extra day off at Christmas. They returned fully refreshed to ensure our customers were well served from fully replenished shelves and with the freshest foods available." Another retailer who has gained the admiration of the City is Safeway chief executive Carlos Criado-Perez. Most wrote him off when he joined a year ago, but he has turned the company round by attracting new customers with high:low pricing and sustaining sales and profit growth. Now he is introducing new store formats in the second phase of the recovery plan. He commented: "Phase two will set new standards for the UK market with innovative store formats, ranges and in-store services. We have already begun to show what we can do and the full development and roll out of these new ideas will drive our longer term growth." Few in the City are ready to argue with him. Sainsbury chief executive Sir Peter Davis defended the latest trading figures which showed Sainsbury achieved like for like sales growth of just 0.7% in the third quarter. He said: "We launched a three year programme in October ­ expecting results in January is not realistic. "The priorities were to stop the fall in profits and stop the decline in customer numbers, and these have both been achieved." Customer visits grew 4.4% over the quarter. He was also strongly critical of press speculation prior to the trading statement suggesting Sainsbury had performed badly over Christmas. "It's hard to manage a turnaround and communicate effectively with more than 100,000 staff when there are things like this in the papers which are completely untrue and mischievous." A flat like for like sales performance over the four week Christmas period would not usually be welcomed by the chief executive of any retail group. But Somerfield's Alan Smith offered this figure as an encouraging sign of how the troubled group was improving its sales performance. During the period, Somerfield like for likes were up 1.6%, while Kwik Save was down 2.4% (bad, but a sign sales are not haemorrhaging as badly as they have been). Smith was particularly pleased with the Somerfield figure ­ which as one City wag pointed out was better than Sainsbury's. Smith said it had been achieved by running the business better ­ particularly when it came to availability of stock. Somerfield's aggressive promotional campaign also helped. Smith said: "We got more things right at Christmas than we did last year and there was a real buzz in our stores." There are still hurdles to clear. But if the recovering retailers deliver, the squeeze on their smaller competitors will mean it won't be a happy Christmas for them next year. {{NEWS }}