King has overseen nine years of unbroken growth during his time at the company and has helped to bring an extra 10m customers through the supermarket’s doors since 2004 and treble its profits.
But last two quarters of underlying sales decline has laid bare the challenges facing the supermarkets, including the rising threat from discounters Aldi and Lidl and the shift away from large stores to online and convenience shopping.
King said while it was “a constant battle”, he insisted the chain was standing “toe to toe” with competitors and that its prices “had never been more competitive”.
He denied that he would be leaving on a low: “If my tenure was judged on one quarter that would be a little sad.”
Like-for-like sales declined by 1.1 per cent, excluding fuel, in the first quarter to 7 June, a slight improvement on the fall of 3.1 per cent in the previous quarter. Total sales rose by one per cent.
Sainsbury’s commercial director Mike Coupe, who will take over from King at the annual meeting on 9 July, insisted the firm was in “great shape”.
“I’m confident we can continue to emphasise our points of differentiation, while maintaining our price position and growing the parts of the business that we know have got future upside potential,” he said.