Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy told an interesting story about how the retailer is using its UK property portfolio to fund its international expansion, as he revealed the company’s record profits today.

Talking about Tesco’s£5 billion plan to release value from its estate, Leahy explained how, by selling one 50,000 sq ft (4,645 sq m) store in the UK, he could fund the development of a 500,000 sq ft (46,450 sq m) shopping centre – anchored by Tesco – in China.

Supermarket property operates in a parallel universe to general retailers. Supermarkets tend to own their stores and regard having control of their estate as essential to business flexibility.

But, while wholesale disposals such as that proposed by Sainsbury’s shareholder Robert Tchenguiz are unlikely for this very reason, deals such as Tesco’s new joint venture with Prudential in February – which realised the grocer£207 million – and Sainsbury’s sales of four distribution centres for a total of£200 million this week are very much on the agenda.

In some respects, it’s an odd time to be doing deals like these. The difficulty of securing debt has knocked the property investment market for six and driven yields skywards.

However, Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s covenants remain attractive to institutional investors and that means that, despite the market conditions, their properties continue to be attractive investments – particularly if the retailer is leasing the properties back.

The key is to retain operational flexibility and, generally, that means selling stores into joint ventures rather than outright. This means that, if a store needs to be reconfigured or extended, the retailer doesn’t need to go back to an absentee landlord for permission to make what can be the smallest changes.

Alternatively, as Sainsbury’s has done this week, selling non-store property can be another way of realising value without affecting the running of the business.

The supermarkets have too much to lose by emulating the non-food retailers and selling off their estates for a short-term cash fix. However, both Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s deals show that they are very much on top of the opportunity.