Until a couple of weeks ago, and for the first time in at least a decade, all of the UK's 'big four' grocers were heading into the Christmas trading period with reasons to be cheerful.
Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Tesco, had the City more-or-less onside (although Asda, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, is not separately listed, it does provide data about its trading performance to analysts).
There are, of course, caveats about the long-term performance of the big four. Questions inevitably arise about how long Tesco can sustain its juggernaut-like sales growth in the UK (the £70m Clubcard promotion announced this week was a sign of an increasingly aggressive approach to protecting its market share). At Sainsbury's, there is scepticism about how effective its move into non-food retailing will prove to be, but for Morrisons, the problems are more real and immediate.
Marc Bolland, Morrisons chief executive, has just been poached by Marks & Spencer to take the helm when Sir Stuart Rose becomes non-executive chairman in the New Year. On the day the move was confirmed, the City gave an unequivocal verdict on the value of Bolland: M&S' share price shot up, while Morrisons' sank as investors digested the news of his departure.
Be in no doubt - marketing is at the heart of this shift in the upper echelons of British retailing. Bolland (along with his marketing chief Angus McIver) has brought some coherence to Morrisons' brand strategy for the first time since the company acquired Safeway in 2004.
His international experience running Heineken meant that Bolland's decision to relocate to Bradford to run what had, until a short time before, been a regional English supermarket chain was welcome, if highly unexpected.
Bolland's appointment may be good news in the short term for both Asda and Sainsbury's: Andy Bond and Justin King, their chief executives, were seen as contenders for Rose's job, despite having publicly ruled themselves out. The uncertainty over their intentions was causing some nervousness.
However, does Bolland's resignation necessarily spell the kind of disaster for Morrisons often prompted by the departure of a successful chief executive? It need not, for several reasons.
The customer-facing parts of Morrisons' business are in decent shape. Its advertising strategy now looks like that of a confident national retailing brand, rather than a provincial operator unsure of consumer tastes in the South East.
Another reason to be optimistic is that there is a pool of talent in British retailing, and Morrisons is a big job.
One of the axioms in the City is that Tesco has suffered a brain drain in recent years, with a succession of senior executives tempted to leave by the lure of the boss' office elsewhere (John Browett's move to DSG International, for example). I disagree. What that repeated poaching by other retailers demonstrates is Tesco's potency at understanding its customers.
Morrisons appointed head-hunters only last week to search for Bolland's successor, but already the City rumour mill is in overdrive.
Mark Price, the boss of Waitrose, is one obvious candidate, although tempting him away from the fast-expanding upmarket chain will be difficult. Another would be Richard Brasher at Tesco, while Browett could also be an outside bet.
There's no doubt that Bolland's departure is a blow, but it's still clear that, thanks to a reinforcement of core retailing disciplines, of which marketing is one, there are now more reasons to want to lead Morrisons.
Mark Kleinman is City editor at Sky News and a columnist for The Times
30 seconds on Marc Bolland
- Bolland was born in 1959 in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. He was awarded an MBA by Groningen University before joining Heineken.
- In his first position as a trainee with the beer brand, he was seconded to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
- Bolland was hired as chief executive at Morrisons in 2006, despite having no experience in retail, or even in the UK. 'I like stores, I was very often in stores at Heineken,' he explained. 'And I am a detail man - you have to be, to work in retail.'
- Since his hiring, Bolland has increased Morrisons' pre-tax profits by more than 90%, and grown the supermarket's average weekly footfall from 1.6m to 10.8m. This has earned him the nickname 'The Flying Dutchman'.
- He says he enjoys living in the UK, especially watching Leeds United play and the atmosphere of his local pub. 'The good thing about Northerners is that if something is crap, they say so,' he added.
- Bolland owns and drives a 1967 Aston Martin DB6.