Anthony Thompson, managing director of Asda’s clothing brand George, said this week that Christmas was going to be “tough, late, and a bit of a rollercoaster”.

While grocers Asda and Tesco have seen non-food growth slow in general, they will be banking on shoppers buying general merchandise at Christmas as they do their weekly food shop.

This week’s news that George has leapfrogged Primark to become Britain’s second biggest clothing retailer by volume, behind Marks & Spencer, shows that maybe shoppers are starting to buy more non-food items with their weekly shop.

Thompson was quick to point out that George and Primark are bound to leapfrog each other several times over the next year as trading patterns are different between the high street and supermarkets. Yet George's advance does show other things too.

Firstly, George has improved its quality over the past year. Thompson wants to become the biggest clothing retailer by 2011 so he can be sure George is able to work with the best factories, secure the best quality and best prices. Evidence of the strength of Asda’s buying power has already been seen in the new ranges it has brought out. Its£15 Little Black Coat, for example, sold out in minutes.

While supermarket clothing was once tarnished with the brush of “throwaway fashion”, George may well be able to move away from this description if it can offer good quality along with the right price. And with the downturn meaning shoppers are moving away from throwaway items to slightly more expensive products that last longer, George could be in the frame to pick up more sales.

Secondly, while supermarkets have been engaged in a petrol price war throughout the summer – the latest episode of which came with Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco knocking 3p off the price to make petrol 94.9p a litre – shoppers have got into the pattern of using their car less over the past year.

Shoppers may well have been cutting out trips to the high street – either because they don’t want to take their car out on a separate journey or generally because they want to cut back on spending – but they haven’t stopped doing their weekly food shop.

If consumers have begun to buy a few George items because they don’t want to make an extra trip to their usual haunts of Primark or H&M and been pleased with the quality as well as the price, George could well come out on top at the end of next year too.

Nobody believes that the downturn will end any time soon and if shoppers have got into the downturn mindset of picking up clothing essentials with their food shop, they won’t be easily shaken out of it until the economy picks up. And that bodes well for other non-food products the grocers sell too.