Note to British retailers: don't try to take on America

Did anyone really think Tesco could do it?

When Tesco announced it was going to take on America, I thought, ‘When will they ever learn?’ and waited for the Yorktown Bugler of 1781 to sound the retreat all over again.

This escapade by the UK’s biggest retailer was always destined for disaster, and so it has proved as Tesco is forced to write off a cool (reported) £1 bn – money they now urgently need at home to invest in the underperforming original UK business.

The record of British grocers and other retailers in the Land of the Free is littered with failures: remember M&S’s ill-fated venture? That’s the M&S which was a penny bazaar in Manchester, then became a wardrobe for the ladies of Middle England, before turning to food, where it was the first ever retailer to put an acceptable chicken Kiev on the nation’s dining tables.
Then it screwed up in America when it bought Brooks Brothers, a purveyor of up-market (in America, that is!) men’s suits, shirts and ties – the sort of offerings which would be considered offensive in Savile Row. The suits were surely cut by lumberjacks and the shirts were made by tent-makers. (Don’t even talk about the ties!)

M&S had made a bad mistake, and the bugler sounded the retreat.

Then J Sainsbury had a gamble and lost their shirt too, with something called People’s Stores, before the Bugler was called on once again.

But when the mighty Tesco said it was going to sell frozen chips and carrots in California, everyone had forgotten its rivals’ track record. Tesco, however, wasn’t going to spend zillions on an acquisition – it would build from scratch, with a new brand – called, after endless market research, "Fresh & Easy".

Well, the chips and carrots never took off, and are now definitely off the menu.

The shares rose on the announcement, leaving that Old Sage of Omaha rubbing his hands with glee: he had bought the discounted shares, but not the chips and carrots.

What is it about America, and British grocers? Here are some of the answers: British retail management doesn’t work there; they can’t bully suppliers there like they can here, in our much smaller market; the distribution logistics are far more complicated – bigger distances, more media outlets for adverts, far greater shopping around for price; much less consumer loyalty, and so on. Then you are only ever working on tiny margins – just 3 per cent, which get easily squeezed at both ends.

The only British retailer to make a bit of a success in America that I can recall – as they didn’t end up a loser, at least – was British American Tobacco.

Having wrung every ounce of profit from the addictive nicotine, before it was realised that cigarettes were just cancer-sticks, it then joined the trend towards conglomerates, so-prevalent in the 1960s-80s, and went into insurance and financial services, and retail in America: it acquired established chains like Marshall Fields in Chicago and Saks Fifth Avenue, both profitable department store chains, and sensibly left the incumbent American management in charge.

When the stock market M&A teams had made two generations of income from creating such conglomerates – remember Hanson, BTR, Pearson, Williams Holdings? – the mood music changed again and the next generation made the same fees in reverse, by taking it all apart again...

Such are the City’s fashions and its zero added-value. The City’s new love affair was with single product/sector companies, with global markets and expertise who knew exactly what they were doing – like Tesco.

So, it is worth pondering which sectors of the British economy have made real money in America. One starts with pop music, actors, TV and films – entertainment is the second biggest industry in America, and in export terms too, only behind defence.

And the UK has done well in defence in niche sectors – BAE, Rolls-Royce, Smiths Industries, Dowty-Messier, Cobham, Chemring and so on – which all depend on world-beating technology. Banking and financial services have their fair share too.

Cars have been hopeless in the past, but now Jaguar Land Rover is the fastest-growing marque in the world, and doing well in America too, as are those hardy perennials Rolls-Royce and Bentley.

And certain non-computer parts of the digital world, such as mobile phone services, and luxury brands too – Burberry, Barbour and fashion generally – and the advertising that goes with it.

Anything except frozen chips and carrots, in fact.

This article first appeared in Spear's magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

Stephen Hill writes for Spear's

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.