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City eyes up supermarket updates

The supermarket sector will be in focus this week with both Tesco and Sainsbury's set to post updates.

The trading figures come against the backdrop of increasing concern about the depth of the consumer slowdown as Chancellor George Osborne sharpens his axe.

The public sector has yet to see the worst of the cuts but already the high street appears to be struggling to deal with the dip in sentiment.

Last week, figures from Argos owner Home Retail Group chilled the mood across the retail sector and the two supermarkets will be closely watched for their comments on sector trends.

Tesco is up first with its update today. In the City, Panmure Gordon expects the group to report UK like-for-like sales, excluding petrol and VAT, to move into positive territory over the company's first quarter, compared to the 0.7% decline seen in the fourth quarter.

Its analysts are eyeing 1% growth, while their counterparts at Espirito Santo are looking for 1.5%, excluding petrol but including VAT, against 0.2% in the fourth quarter.

Given the weak consumer backdrop, which is expected to weigh on the non-food offering, and given that new chief executive Phil Clarke only took the helm recently, there are unlikely to be any big surprises. "This will be almost a 'nothing to see' announcement, with little to drive the shares in either direction, because it is too early in Phil Clarke's tenure to be categoric one way or the other," Panmure has stated.

Sainsbury's is up next, with its first quarter update tomorrow. Here, Espirito is expecting like-for-like sales growth of 2.5%, again excluding petrol but including VAT.

"This will be an interesting update from Sainsbury's in order to see the extent to which the slowdown in the fourth quarter has continued," the broker said.

"At the time, we thought there may have been a short-term pullback in promotions, and this seems to have been confirmed by recent management comments at the full-year results."