As press reports emerged this week linking Asda with a takeover of Somerfield, the chairman of the Bristol-based chain appeared to slap a for-sale notice on the company.

John Lovering told Reuters at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona: "We are unashamedly growing a business that will be attractive to anyone who wants a 1,000-unit c-store business. I've no idea when they'll knock on my door with a big enough bag of money."

Somerfield has been in the hands of an Apax Partners-led consortium since 2005 and the group was now looking to sell the chain, claimed one retail source. A lot of ex-Asda people had been brought in, which made a link with its larger rival more likely, he said.

Asda and Somerfield declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the OFT dismissed reports Asda had asked it whether it would face an inquiry if it bid for Sainsbury's.

The OFT said it no longer issued informal advice on potential M&As.

Also this week, property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz continued to build up his stake in Sainsbury's, which now stands at 4.51%.