If Tesco’s proposed acquisition of Booker put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons, Sainsbury’s has proved it is ready to fight, not take flight.

Britain’s second-biggest grocer ruffled a few feathers last year when it splashed out £1.4bn on Argos, but now it is bidding to pluck Nisa from its member-owned independence.

Retail Week suggested last month that Sainsbury’s could do worse than to cast an eye over Costcutter, Palmer & Harvey or Nisa in response to the Tesco-Booker merger.

It seems the latter’s impressive turnaround and extremely modest £130m price tag has pricked up the ears of boss Mike Coupe and finance chief Kevin O’Byrne.

Nisa suffered a £3m loss in 2015, as Costcutter, with which it had a £500m supply contract, switched to Palmer & Harvey.

But it swung back into the black in 2016, recording a £7.3m profit on sales of £1.3bn.

“As well as providing an avenue for Sainsbury’s to quickly build its convenience footprint, the potential acquisition of Nisa would also thrust it into the wholesale arena alongside Tesco”

With that in mind, it’s clear to see why the duo have found themselves attracted to Nisa in the aftermath of Tesco’s shock Booker announcement.

The convenience specialist’s 1,400 members operate 2,500 shops – the purchase of which would allow Sainsbury’s to rapidly expand its c-store footprint for a relatively low outlay.

Coupe spoke just last month about the difficulty Sainsbury’s was facing in securing good-quality locations for convenience stores.

He said the grocer would open just 25 in its current financial year compared with 41 in 2016/17, primarily because there are “less good sites available”.

As well as providing an avenue for Sainsbury’s to quickly build its convenience footprint, the potential acquisition of Nisa would also thrust it into the wholesale arena alongside Tesco.

Nisa’s biggest customer is the McColl’s convenience chain, but the combination of Sainsbury’s and Nisa’s buying power could lure in more clients.

City graph RW230617

City graph RW230617

Structural change

Sainsbury’s attempts to gobble up a piece of the same wholesale pie that Tesco is targeting underscores the dramatic restructuring taking place in the grocery industry.

Morrisons has itself become a supplier to online titan Amazon, while the changing way consumers eat – including eating breakfast on the go and ordering lunch to be delivered to their places of work – has driven the rapid rise of businesses such as Pret A Manger, JustEat and Deliveroo.

Mainstream grocery retailers are having to respond to that shifting landscape – and fast.

Yet industry sources have suggested that Sainsbury’s latest move constitutes a “knee-jerk” reaction after being “spooked” by Tesco’s swoop for Booker.

Could it be that Coupe and company are actually missing an opportunity to do something more proactive than reactive?

Sainsbury’s acquisition of Argos was certainly an innovative, future-gazing deal that enhanced its non-food credentials, boosted its fulfilment proposition and provided another reason for shoppers to visit its larger stores.

“Although Sainsbury’s would have to fork out a similar sum it paid for Argos in order to buy Pret, the opportunity for growth is arguably vaster in foodservice than in wholesale or convenience”

But a bid for Nisa screams of a contrastingly defensive ploy from the decision-makers at 33 Holborn.

Could the grocer instead have used the capital to pursue a move for Patisserie Valerie, the upmarket cake brand it is piloting a dozen in-store counters with?

Or could it have gone all out to snap up sandwich and salad chain Pret, at a time when its owner Bridgepoint is reportedly exploring IPO or sale options?

Nisa might have returned to profit last year, but Pret’s earnings jumped 11% to £93.2m in the year to December 29, 2016, on sales of £776m.

Although Sainsbury’s would have to fork out a similar sum it paid for Argos in order to buy Pret, the opportunity for growth is arguably vaster in foodservice than in wholesale or convenience.

The fact that former Waitrose boss Mark Price says the biggest regret of his tenure was not snapping up Pret’s rival Eat tells its own story.

Sainsbury’s shareholders will hope that Messrs Coupe and O’Byrne don’t live to tell a similar tale.