Thinking about Tesco

Cards on the table: I’ve never worked for or with a major supermarket chain.  Whereas I can draw on diverse experience with department stores, fashion or electricals, when it comes to the Big Four, I’m an outsider.  Or “customer”.

So I’m watching the latest round in the endless supermarket wars with interest.  Tesco is moving away from multibuys, canning double Clubcard points, and throwing all its weight behind lower prices, set to roll out on Monday after some unprecedented remerchandising on Sunday night.

Tesco needs to regain the initiative because – despite being Britain’s largest retailer and ipso facto retail bogeyman, it’s been on the back foot for a little while.  Price wars have been going on since the end of Green Shield stamps, and sometimes the wars are phonier than others, but Tesco has (finally) recognised that its battered customers will respond more positively to sustained price-cuts than to “value” spin.  It’s competitors have responded “smoke and mirrors!”, but competing with the new programme will be more costly for them (in terms of impact on total profitability) than for Tesco itself.

Tesco’s success and its mixed reputation have gone hand-in-hand, which partly illustrates the contraryness of the consumer, and is partly all Tesco’s own doing.  There are other corporations with greater monopolies over their sector – Apple, Amazon, Sky – about which the man on the Clapham omnibus feels largely benign, whether he reads the Guardian or the Telegraph.  And there are big retailers – Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Selfridges – where the profit motive is pursued quite as vigorously as at Tesco (if not always as securely delivered) – that the British hug to our collective bosom.

For me, the challenge with the Tesco experience is the feeling I always get, however large or small the store, that I am being pushed and pulled around by a big machine, and that my presence in Tesco is subservient to that machine.  I get the impression that the same applies to Tesco’s staff; I am sure that thousands of fine people work for Tesco, but their individuality appears to be suppressed to a greater extent than at Waitrose or indeed Morrisons.

All large companies are run using formularised systems and procedures, overlaid with clear accountabilities for each job-holder, but Tesco’s very success and efficiency seem to militate against individual expression.  Patrick Collinson blogged in the Guardian last week about Tesco’s heavy-handed attitude towards his writing down their prices – a situation that would have been easily resolved by applying some human common sense.  When I was being processed through the tills in my local Tesco last week, the check-out girl was being berated (sorry, given-on-the-job training) regarding an erroneous transaction, but was expected to continue to serve customers while the supervisor hectored.  The experience was clearly doing nothing for the girl (and she was just a girl), and did nothing for this customer either.  Better that, though, than the new corral of badly managed and unreliable self-scanners, where any error is the customer’s fault.

My own samizdat action was to photograph a sign over the new chiller cabinet:

What, just these two doors?  Or all the doors in the country?  What about the stores that still have open cabinets?  And these new, narrower cabinets are accompanied by narrower aisles, so the quality of the shopping experience has been diminished.  I believe Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, whereas this sort of puffery just induces cynicism, I’m afraid.

The primary responsibility of any company is towards its shareholders, and the broader stakeholder community of customers, staff, suppliers and communities must necessarily be secondary.  However, companies in the service sector – and retailers most of all – must maintain a balanced and open attitude towards all of these groups, in order to maintain their reputation and secure their future.  And for mid-market retailers, this balance matters most of all.  If a company’s only USP is price, and its goal is always to be the cheapest in the market, then consumers will accept a trade-off against service, environment etc.  They’ll tolerate idiosyncrasies in service and availability that they wouldn’t accept in the mid-market, but the rock-bottom retailer still gives the impression that they are on the side of the shopper.

The modern Tesco no longer does this; its customer face is more appropriate to a middle-ground-straddling monopolistic provider – a utility company, a train company; and of all the supermarket businesses, Tesco comes closest to monopoly, thanks to its multi-format success, and its ability to “Tesco-ise” a town – Inverness, for instance.

Shopping for food is usually a chore, but the application of value or individuality, be at Poundland or Morrisons, Waitrose or Whole Foods, can add some pleasure, a je ne sais quoi, to the experience.  Tesco offers little expectation of surprise-and-delight.  Its ruthless efficiency makes it one of the world’s most successful retailers; as Brits we should be proud of it, but our experience as simple shoppers make it very difficult to love.


POSTSCRIPT:  this piece from the Guardian, taking a broader look at Store Wars, is also well worth reading.