J Sainsbury – Britain's number two supermarket chain (or is it?) – has for the first time been outsold by Asda, the supermarketeer acquired last year by America’s Wal-Mart.

Asda, for some years number three in the sector, claims to have swapped rankings with Sainsbury based on the latest till-roll data published by market research group Taylor Nelson Sofres. This shows Asda overtaking Sainsbury on a volume basis with 15.4% of the market compared with Sainsbury’s 15%.

However, the reversal is volume not value-based, insists Sainsbury, which according to the TNS data commands 16% of the value market as opposed to Asda’s 14.5%. Asda ripostes that Sainsbury is number two by value only because its prices are higher. "We estimate they are about 15% more expensive than we are," said an Asda spoke.

Analysts, raking through the entrails, believe the figures indicate that Sainsbury continues to shed market share: “The underlying recovery of Sainsbury has been exaggerated," intoned one.

Sainsbury’s suffering, however, appears to be due more to the success of another rival – Safeway – than that of Asda. Safeway, in fourth position, has seen a 16% volume gain over the past five years against a decline of nearly 7% by Sainsbury. "Safeway is doing what Sainsbury should be in its new-format stores," opined one analyst. "There is a danger that even Safeway could steal the emperor's clothes."

News source: Financial Times