Sainsbury's posts first rise in sales for over two years
Supermarket Sainsbury's, which has 13 stores in Northern Ireland, has stepped up its performance after posting its first quarterly like-for-like sales growth for more than two years.
Britain's second-biggest grocer, which employs around 3,000 people here, said that like-for-like retail sales, excluding fuel, rose 0.1% in the fourth quarter, compared with a fall of 0.4% in the third quarter.
The upturn in results is a significant boost for the Big Four grocer, coming after sales plummeted by 1.9% a year earlier amid a supermarket price war that continues today.
The sales statistics come just days ahead of a March 18 deadline for Sainsbury's to improve its offer for the Home Retail Group, the parent company of Argos.
The chain said the proposed deal would create a "world-leading'' retailer bigger than rivals John Lewis and Amazon UK when it tabled an improved £1.3bn offer in February.
Since then, South African retailer Steinhoff has attempted to gatecrash the supermarket's cash and shares deal with a £1.4bn offer.
Chief executive Mike Coupe said that Sainsbury's had delivered a "strong performance" in the fourth quarter as it recorded like-for-like sales and volume growth while also maintaining its market share. He added: "We are progressing well with our quality investment in 3,000 own-brand products.
"The new year is traditionally a time when customers focus on healthy eating, and to cater for this demand we launched a number of vegetable-based product innovations including boodles (butternut squash noodles) and courgetti (spiralised courgette), which are proving extremely popular with our customers."
Sainsbury's refused to be drawn on whether it would pitch a third offer for Home Retail before the deadline, but it reaffirmed its position that it would not pay over the odds for the company .
Mr Coupe said: "The Argos bid is not a must-do deal at any price, and if it doesn't go ahead, Sainsbury's will continue."
Shares in Sainsbury's were down more than 1%.
Alongside the fourth quarter like-for-like sales growth for the nine weeks to March 12, 2016, total retail sales, excluding fuel, also grew 1.2% over the period.
It is the first time the supermarket has seen like-for-like retail sales, excluding fuel, grow in a quarter since the third quarter of 2013/14 when sales edged up 0.2%.
Mr Coupe said the fourth quarter sales growth was the result of a "very rounded performance" from the business.
Performance was bolstered by rising online sales and a strong performance from its clothing and entertainment divisions.
He said clothing sales had recovered after being hit by unseasonable weather during previous quarters, increasing by more than 10%, while strong releases - including Adele's new album and James Bond movie Spectre - had seen entertainment sales rise nearly 11%.
Online grocery sales climbed close to 14% over the period, while orders rose nearly 19%.
The company, which has 601 supermarkets and 773 convenience stores across the UK, said its promotional participation levels had reduced year-on-year, running at an average of 28% for the quarter.