Asda CEO Andy Clarke

Asda CEO Andy Clarke

Sanguine stuff from Asda CEO Andy Clarke this morning, who took the hot seat as guest editor of The Grocer on a gloriously sunny day only for Kantar Worldpanel to cast a shadow over events.

Asda sales were down 3.5% for the 12 weeks ending 21 June 2015, according to Kantar, leaving the retailer with a 16.5% share of the market.

That’s down 0.6% on last year. Yet Clarke, a 30-year industry veteran, remained upbeat throughout the day, freely answering questions on a wide range of grocery-related topics, from the potential for the big UK grocers to consolidate, to the unpredictable fallout should Greece exit the EU, to the price of milk and the unstoppable rise of the Minions.

Pens stopped scribbling at regular “this has to be off the record” intervals, but when a guest editor rolls in that is always part of the fun, and it’s often when things get really interesting. But the Kantar numbers are always firmly on the record, and although they were negative for Asda, Clarke looked for a positive.

“I guess there are no big surprises in there, but if you exclude the discounters, the spread is quite narrow,” he said. “When you take an objective view of the figures, the difference between the top, 0.6%, and the negative, 3.5%, is quite a narrow band, particularly as half of the big four are in recovery.”

Whether that view is objective or sympathetic is debatable, but it’s clearly not just Asda in a pickle.

It’s true that sales were up 0.6% at Morrisons, which also increased its market share by 0.1% to 11%, but the supermarket is only on the up after falling so far down that Sir Ken almost popped an eyeball and the CEO was sacked. Its tiny 0.1% increase also represents its first rise in market share since December 2011. So it’s commendable that incoming CEO David Potts has stopped the rot, but it’s not worthy of celebration.

Elsewhere sales fell by 1.3% at both Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Tesco’s market share fell 0.3% to 28.6% and Sainsbury’s dipped 0.2% to 16.5%. Both are working furiously to return to growth, which is proving frustratingly elusive for Tesco CEO Dave Lewis and Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe.

The lack of surprises in the Kantar numbers continued with the positive results returned by the discounters. “Their sales have slowed to half of what they were 18 months ago, but 15% is still nice” said Clarke. Aldi and Lidl also increased their market shares; Aldi now has 5.5% while Lidl rose to 3.9%, year on year upticks of 0.8% and 0.3% respectively.

“These latest figures mark our fourth year as the UK’s fastest growing grocery retailer,” said a chirpy Tony Baines, Aldi’s joint managing director of buying, this afternoon. “Our customers want low prices on quality products and we’re maintaining a significant price gap of at least 15% on an average basket.”

It’s that price gap that eventually sparked a price war, which has made a handsome contribution to the depressed figures for the market as a whole released by Kantar today. Overall sales are up 2% year on year but groceries are 1.7% cheaper, meaning the market is going backwards, with 0.1% less flowing through tills compared to last year.

So, as they have done for the last couple of years, the Kantar figures made for grim reading for the big four. What happens next in terms of how they can pull themselves out of this hole is every bit as unpredictable as the situation with Greece and the EU. Both are unprecedented. Both are messy. Although in both instances, one thing seems likely. Dramatic structural change awaits.