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By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - Up to 3,500 jobs are at risk at British supermarket group Sainsbury's <SBRY.L> as its new CEO embarks on a restructuring drive that will close 420 Argos shops and all in-store meat, fish and deli counters.
Detailing his strategy for Britain's second biggest grocer, Simon Roberts, who succeeded Mike Coupe in June, said on Thursday he would refocus Sainsbury's on its core food business.
He plans to lower prices, treble the number of new products launched each year, expand online services to meet growing demand and open 110 new convenience stores over three years.
"We will put food back at the heart of Sainsbury's," he said.
"Our other brands - Argos, Habitat, Tu, Nectar and Sainsbury's Bank - must deliver for their customers and for our shareholders in their own right."
He said the bank could be sold, confirming to reporters "expressions of interest" have been received.
He denied he was taking the 151-year old Sainsbury's downmarket by closing in-store counters.
"We've had a really good look at how customers are shopping for food today and the reality on the counters is that they have been in long term decline for quite a period of time," he told reporters.
He is targeting an Argos general merchandise store or collection point in every Sainsbury's supermarket, reducing the Argos standalone store estate to around 100 by March 2024.
Roberts said his plan would boost earnings, forecasting pretax profit in the year to March 2022 ahead of that reported in the year to March 2020 - a year not impacted by COVID-19.
Sainsbury's said it aimed to find alternative roles for as many affected employees as possible.
The job cuts add to a grim toll in the retail sector. On Wednesday John Lewis axed 1,500.
IN THE RED
Sainsbury's reported a pretax loss of 137 million pounds for the 28 weeks to Sept. 19, reflecting a 438 million pounds charge due to the Argos closures and other strategic and market changes.
Its shares were down 4.7% at 1108 GMT, extending 2020 losses to 13.5%.
Underlying pretax profit was 301 million pounds - ahead of analysts' average forecast of 275 million and the 238 million made in the same period last year, reflecting a 6.9% increase in like-for-like retail sales.
COVID-19 related costs of about 290 million pounds were partially offset by 230 million pounds of business rates relief.
Roberts said Sainsbury's was justified in taking the relief because of the huge costs incurred in "feeding the nation" during the crisis.
Full year 2020-21 underlying pretax profit was forecast to be at least 5% higher than 2019-20's 586 million pounds, reflecting stronger than expected sales.
Sainsbury's is also paying dividends again - declaring a 7.3 pence special dividend in lieu of a final dividend for 2019-20, and an interim payment of 3.2 pence.
(Reporting by James Davey, Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Potter)