Morrisons tightlipped on Bolland departure amid record festive sales

SUPERMARKET major Morrisons stonewalled questions on its top-level succession issue yesterday as it posted record-breaking festive sales ahead of its rivals.

There was still no news on when outgoing chief executive Marc Bolland, who was poached by rival Marks & Spencer late last year, will leave. Sir Ian Gibson, Morrisons' chairman, would say only that a successor would be announced in the not too distant future.

Unveiling a 6.5 per cent jump in like-for-like sales in the six weeks to 3 January, Gibson said Bolland had been on a one-year's notice period. "We are in discussions with him concerning all the features of his departure. These discussions are confidential," Gibson said. The chairman said the search for a new boss at Morrisons, where finance director Richard Pennycook is perceived as one of the front- runners, was progressing well.

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But he added: "There's no decision to announce yet, but when there is we will make a simple announcement of it." Pressed on the timing, Gibson would say only "it won't be a long way away".

The group's performance compared with festive like-for-like sales growth of 4.9 per cent at Tesco and 4.2 per cent at Sainsbury's. Industry data suggests Morrisons is also ahead of Asda – part of US giant Wal-Mart Stores.

Richard Hunter, UK equities head at broker Hargreaves Lansdown, said Morrisons "continues to be a thorn in the side of its three bigger rivals".

Pennycook said: "The performance is not a one-off. It builds on significant progress we have made in recent years."

On the trading outlook, he said: "We see 2010 being tough in the same way that the back half of 2008 and whole of 2009 was challenging for the consumer."

Rather than any notable new initiatives or fresh price promotions at the chain, Pennycook added that the strategy this year would be "steady as she goes".

Total group sales in the latest period lifted 11.2 per cent. Morrisons said that one factor behind the performance was the lack of retail price inflation."As expected, commodity prices have continued to decline, leading to an elimination of retail price inflation for the consumer," it said.