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Never mind Tesco, is the Sainsbury’s share price the one to buy now?

The J Sainsbury (LSE: SBRY) share price is down 35% over the past 12 months, exacerbated by the failure of the planned merger with Asda.

It’s a very competitive environment, and without the claimed economies of scale that a mega-merger could possibly achieve, it’s difficult for Sainsbury to compete with the onslaught of Aldi and Lidl on top of the UK’s already squeezed marketplace.

The slightly upmarket appeal of Sainsbury appears to have largely evaporated these days, and I don’t know how it’s going to differentiate itself in now that it’s all down to price, price, price.

Bank?

Actually, one possible approach is to provide more in-store services, as I was reminded on Tuesday when I read of the appointment of Jim Brown as the new CEO of Sainsbury’s Bank. There’s nothing earth-shattering in that, but then I think back to Tesco (LSE: TSCO) and its diversification into banking and things like that leading up to its over-stretching crisis.

Sainsbury’s Bank seems to doing reasonably well, though operating profit from the company’s financial services (including Argos Financial Services) dropped to £31m in the 2018-19 year. To put that into some perspective, RBS reported operating profit of £1bn in its first quarter this year. And Sainsbury’s itself recorded a retail operating profit of £692m in the year just ended.

It’s only a few weeks ago that Tesco told us it was quitting mortgage lending, and was considering ways to dispose of the business entirely. As Kevin Godbold put it, “providing mortgages looks like another commodity-style pursuit with precious little to differentiate between one provider’s offering and another’s.”

No differentiation

When the main service a company is providing is a non-differentiated commodity, I don’t think adding more non-differentiated commodities is really providing much of a competitive advantage. We already have a very effective and efficient one-stop shop for all our run-of-the-mill stuff — it’s called the internet.

No, it seems to me that for a supermarket to compete, it increasingly needs to do so on price, so how do Sainsbury’s and Tesco shape up on that score?

I know some of my Fool colleagues are seeing Tesco at least as an attractive long-term buy at the moment. Looking at current forecasts for it, predicted EPS rises would drop the forward P/E to only around 12 by 2021, and the dividend would be up to a yield of 3.9%. And I’ll admit that looks like a tempting valuation right now.

And a look at Sainsbury’s shows a valuation that, on the face of it, looks even more attractive. Here we’re talking about an even lower 2021 P/E of 11, with a dividend yield of 4.6%.

Further ahead

But I think we need to look to the greater future here, and I reckon Edward Sheldon has picked up on that very well. He points out that consumer data experts Kantar Worldpanel saw no growth from Tesco or Sainsbury in the 12 weeks to 19 May. And that’s during a period when Lidl sales grew by 11.1% while Aldi recorded an 8.5% jump.

City analysts might be predicting decent growth for both over the next few years, but I don’t yet see where it’s coming from. In fact, I can see all of our big supermarkets experiencing a tighter and tighter competitive squeeze. And that, to me, is not an enticing prospect for my retirement investments.

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Alan Oscroft has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Tesco. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.