Once attacked for being all-powerful, Tesco is now being criticised for apparently relaxing its vice-like grip on the retail market.

Once attacked for being all-powerful, Tesco is now being criticised for apparently relaxing its vice-like grip on the retail market.

The market-leading grocer has been the food sector laggard, bringing up the rear in the latest legs of the supermarket race – an occurrence that once seemed as rare as Halley’s comet.

There was more evidence of slowdown on Tuesday, when the latest TNS figures put Tesco’s sales growth fourth out the big four in the 12 weeks to August 9.

The sluggish performance seemed to confirm the view that Tesco, so long used to having things its own way, has been winded by rivals that once looked ready to keel over.

Tesco initiatives such as the introduction of discount brands or the most recent broadside, double Clubcard points, have added to the impression that Tesco is increasingly being forced to respond to its rivals’ fleetness of foot rather than the other way around.

There’s no doubt that Tesco faces tougher competition. Competitors have got better. Sainsbury’s has made the most of a reputation for quality without acquiring a reputation for being too expensive. Morrisons has carved out a growing niche for itself as a food specialist offering keen value. Asda has maintained its value credentials and is known for being cheap, but not nasty.

It’s a very different landscape from that just a few years ago when Sainsbury’s and Morrisons were in turmoil, or when Asda had a ‘blip’.

But the improvements achieved by Tesco’s competitors do not mean that Tesco has become a worse retailer or is losing the plot. After all, Tesco’s like-for-likes are not declining. Sales are growing and record profits have become par for the Tesco course.

Until that is no longer true, Tesco’s position looks pretty unassailable. The various new tactics Tesco is trying – some may succeed, others may not – indicate that it has no intention of sitting on its laurels and it certainly cannot afford to do so.

Tesco is being made to sweat a bit, but it’s still out in front in the race.