Britain's fourth-largest supermarket chain Safeway today [Tuesday] posted a 4.1% growth in its like-for-like Q3 sales, but its performance during the Christmas trading period lagged sector rivals.

Sales growth for the first 12 weeks of Safeway's second half, ended 5 January, was at the lower end of analyst expectations of 4-5% growth. Third quarter like-for-like volume growth meanwhile accelerated to 5.4% from 4.3% in the second quarter, after disinflation of 1.3%, according to a statement by the chain.

Two-year like-for-like sales growth in the third quarter was over 10%.

Safeway, which operates just under 500 stores across Britain, described its performance during the Christmas period as "robust", and pointed to "continued growth in customer numbers" and "increasing average spend from our existing clients". All of this was achieved "despite the impact of substantially lower petrol prices" and a continuing store refitting programme.
 
"With the successful opening of our first megastore in Plymouth last December, we now have the four formats (megastores, superstores, supermarkets and convenience stores) we need to drive the business forward in the years ahead," the company said.

Over the last year, UK supermarkets have enjoyed buoyant trading conditions, but the sector's shares have been falling since summer. Analysts are warning that the situation cannot continue as the economy slows, and Safeway's "high-low" pricing strategy could place it among the first to lose market share.
 
Safeway is due to release its preliminary full year results on 15 May.