The atmosphere was convivial, with old acquaintances greeting each other warmly. Around them, waiters and waitresses carried trays of Sainsbury's products - prosciutto ham and pineapple chunks. Above the milling shareholders hung oversized price tags. The message being pushed was King's mantra of good quality food at low prices. However, the shareholders had other things on their mind, principally the fact that their dividend had been halved.
Sainsbury's chairman Philip Hampton and chief executive Justin King, flanked by a largely mute set of non-executive directors, tried to pre-empt shareholder ire over their decision to invest in products and advertising, rather than maintaining the dividend. King eloquently reiterated his road map back to growth, but it was not enough to silence the palpable shareholder indignation. Directors' remuneration was called into question, as was King's apparent reluctance to put his hand in his pocket, as one shareholder put it, to invest in shares with his own money and share their risk. King, in his defence, replied that he had now invested in Sainsbury's shares.
Other gripes included noisy local deliveries, and one shareholder presented the board each with a DVD showing the problem. Accusations that the board was singling out cornershop proprietors as easy targets in its convenience store strategy also flew, although that particular shareholder was heckled and told to sit down by his peers. More worrying were shareholder complaints about food quality and availability, one even from an employee of the flagship Hazel Grove store.
However, the protests melted away when it came to voting the 20-odd proposals, all of which were carried almost unanimously, even the proposal to cut the dividend. Maybe it was the promise of a goody bag containing a packet of award-winning lemon butter thin biscuits and Attareekhat Assam teabags that calmed their anxieties. Or perhaps it was the complexity of negotiating the electronic voting system, which as Sainsbury's shareholders, they were using for the first time.