Think of a major UK supermarket, and Justin King has had a hand in its operations.

The businessman is widely credited with saving supermarket chain Sainsbury’s from consecutive profit declines and competition from supermarket rivals in the early 2000s.

Joining in 2004, King managed to restore the supermarket’s profits while also creating controversy around axing employee bonuses. He resigned from the role in 2014.

King has also worked at Asda, M&S and with the food industry giants PepsiCo and Mars.

At the UKHospitality Summer Conference held in the JW Marriott Grosvenor Square hotel, King discussed key themes in the retail sector and asserted its strengths while taking amusing jabs at the contrary audience of hospitality professionals.

Justin King’s thoughts on retail digitalisation

Digitalisation is an ever-changing force that retailers often understandably panic to keep up with, but King’s view on the movement is confidently straightforward.

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Speaking about the rise of self-service over manned tills during his tenure at Sainsbury’s, King stated: “You can’t force the consumer to do anything they don’t want to do. So, we [Sainsbury’s] made it a choice for our customers, asking them in shops if they would like to give the self-service tills a go.”

As for AI, the technology currently taking the world by storm, King remains unphased: “Retail is a people-facing sector and that needs to stay central.”

He denied that he is a “technophobe” but continued to emphasise the humancentric nature of the sector. In fact, he made it a point during his time as Sainsbury’s CEO to visit a different store every Friday to keep his hand in the business’s day-to-day operations and engage directly with its employees.

How sustainable is the retail sector, in King’s view?

In response to an audience question about sustainability in retail, King proudly declared that “supermarkets have always been ahead of other sectors in understanding sustainable supply chains and farm-to-fork strategies”.

He added: “Supermarkets are adept at representing the consumer in facing the darker sides of supply chains.”

However, King was evasive regarding the specifics of the retail sector’s contribution to the UK’s carbon footprint and plastic pollution.

GlobalData highlights the “Blue Planet Effect”, which leads to consumers pointing the finger at supermarkets to decrease their environmental impact through the likes of plastic reduction (of which UK supermarkets create an estimated 800,000t a year). This has put the UK’s biggest retailers in the unenviable position of balancing social responsibility with protecting margins.

King did express cynicism at the ongoing trend of companies “who keep extending their sustainability targets year after year,” which he feels “tells you a lot about the state of sustainability in business.”

King’s vision for the future of retail

A recurring point throughout King’s talk was competitiveness within the food and grocery retail industry, which seemingly remains as intense today as when he joined Sainsbury’s as CEO almost 20 years ago.

Indeed, last week the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) ordered supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Asda to stop blocking rivals from opening stores nearby, and the regulator issued a similar order against Tesco in 2020 and Waitrose in September 2022.

As for the future growth of the retail sector, King highlighted the need to make the industry attractive for jobseekers and that a career can be built within it if a good working culture is established.

King concluded: “One in 14 people in the UK have started their working life at Sainsbury’s, which is something to be proud of.”