Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe has defended Argos’ festive performance despite suffering a slowdown in sales during the crucial golden quarter.

The grocer’s group like-for-like sales increased 1.1% in the 15 weeks to January 6, but total general merchandise sales – the bulk of which come through the Argos business – fell 1.4% during the period.

However, Coupe insisted its performance in non-food was “good” and said Argos “continued to outperform the market” in general merchandise.

“This is not a short-term game, this is a long-term game,” Coupe said of the £1.4bn Argos acquisition, which it completed in September 2016.

“The market is challenging and there’s certainly a little bit of a squeeze on consumer disposable income. Where people are able to defer purchases, they do. That’s reflected in the market performance in general merchandise,” Coupe added.

“The Argos numbers represent an improvement in market share and there was a little bit of mitigation from the fact we closed a lot of Argos stores in Homebase, which does have a significant negative effect on the headline sales number.

“So the numbers are better than the headlines would suggest and we are pleased with performance overall.”

‘Broadly flat’

Coupe said Argos sales were broadly flat once the impact of closing its concessions within Homebase stores had been stripped out.

Argos operated more than 100 fewer Homebase concessions during the golden quarter than it did during the same period a year ago.

Sainsbury’s has also shuttered around 60 standalone Argos stores over the past 12 months, but now has 164 Argos shop-in-shops within its larger supermarkets.

In addition to those property factors, Coupe admitted Argos experienced a “particular challenge” in toy sales during the golden quarter, although he said this was partially offset by strong sales in other categories.

“Tech, audio, games consoles – those types of products were all good,” Coupe said. “But toys were a little bit more challenging.”