CO-OPERATIVE Group Chief Executive Martin Beaumont has warned that a slow down in food sales in 2004 will lead to difficult times for co-operative retailing.
Addressing the Group's AGM at Old Trafford on Saturday, Mr Beaumont said that, in 2003, the society's convenience stores outperformed the market, aided by investment in store refurbishments and acquisitions.
"These acquisitions came at exactly the right time, when the sector is coming under the multiples' spotlight," said Mr Beaumont . "But, neither they, nor the refit programme, would have been possible had the board not embraced a retail strategy which included the disposal of underperforming superstores.
"With intense media speculation about where Tesco and the rest will strike next, the need to be ready to acquire new stores in this sector ? when we can do so at the right price ? or to grow CRTG in other ways in order to have sufficient buying scale, has never been greater."
Mr Beaumont said that while the flurry of takeover activity is having a major impact upon the market and pushing prices down, which may be good for consumers, it means that like-for-like sales in the first quarter are flat, at best, with larger stores suffering particularly while convenience stores are holding up reasonably well.
"This will be a much more difficult trading year for us in food," he explained. "Tesco's rapidly expanding market share ? £ 1 in £ 8 of the retail spend and a food share of 27 per cent and growing ? carries with it the danger of an unbalanced food market to the detriment ultimately of customers and suppliers alike."