Tesco: just what went so wrong?

Fresh and not so easy.

The big number in today’s results is profit, which is down by a whopping 51.5 per cent on last year. In large part this is down to a series of one-off items, including a write down of the value of the UK property portfolio amounting to some £804m. This in itself is notable as it arises from a decision not to build new stores on more than 100 sites that the company owns and once intended to develop. In essence, this signals the beginning of the end of the grocery space race. Tesco recognises that the opportunity to profitably open new stores is more limited due to both saturation and the continued growth of online. Indeed, its own online sales now stand at over £3bn, up 13 per cent on last year; a clear indication that this, and not new space, is one of the prime drivers of growth going forward.

Profit has also been impacted, albeit to a lesser extent, by a reduction in trading profit. Overall this was down by 13 per cent on last year. This reflects both the refresh activity in new UK stores and also the sharpening of prices. Arguably, both are necessary moves to restore growth to the UK business. Indeed, it can be argued that deterioration in profit to improve stores should rightly be seen as a critical investment that will, over the longer term, pay dividends.

Improvements on the home front

On the home front, while Tesco’s results remain muted there is a sense that the business is now heading in the right direction as the “Build a Better Tesco” strategic plan starts to deliver. While for the full year, LFL sales remain in negative territory there is a clear momentum over the reporting period with a particularly strong performance in quarter 4 (LFLs up 0.5 per cent), which encompasses the all-important festive trading period. Given the scale and maturity of Tesco’s business and the highly competitive state of the market this is a solid underlying performance that indicates that some of the initiatives are now having an impact on consumer behaviour.

Over the next few years, the clear priority in the UK is investment in the customer experience across all channels, but especially in-store. This is something Tesco has been guilty of neglecting in the past and it has damaged customer loyalty, retention and, ultimately, sales. Going forward, given that Tesco’s growth will be much less reliant on opening new space, getting more out of existing stores becomes doubly important. The refreshes, which now number 300 stores and around a quarter of Tesco’s UK selling space, are not necessarily ground-breaking in their thinking but they are a significant step up and provide a more pleasant and engaging shopping experience for the consumer.

The various acquisitions and partnerships Tesco has put in place, including Giraffe, Harris + Hoole and Euphorium bakery, provide a clear indication that it intends to significantly enhance the future in-store experience by introducing strongly branded added-value propositions. Directionally, this thinking is correct and it demonstrates that Tesco clearly understands the importance of providing differentiation over and above competitors, giving its stores more of a destination status, and the increasing importance of leisure within traditional retail.

The incorporation of new initiatives in-store may also help Tesco utilise space more effectively within its larger formats. The latest results clearly indicate the underperformance of non-food, which declined slightly overall and was down by 5% on a LFL basis. Given that clothing has performed strongly, there will be some non-food categories where Tesco has seen a significant deterioration in sales. The market outlook for non-food looks fairly anaemic for the next couple of years, meaning that Tesco would do well to look to reduce the footprint given to some of these categories.

Looking ahead, with the store refresh programme continuing and the re-launch of the flagship Finest brand firmly on the agenda, continued progress from Tesco over the short and medium term should be expected.

The American misadventure

The decision to abandon the Fresh & Easy venture cannot have been an easy one. That it has been made is a credit to CEO Phil Clarke and his team as it underlines their willingness push through the tough measures needed to put the group back on track. While over the longer term Fresh & Easy could have become a profitable venture, it is clear that there were no shortcuts to success and creating a sustainable business was would have required a great deal of time and capital. Arguably, at this point both of these resources are better directed at Tesco’s core business where returns are much more certain and can be delivered over a shorter period of time.

Retail history will likely record Tesco’s American foray as something of an unfortunate misadventure. On paper the Fresh & Easy concept sounded reasonable enough. There was, and to some extent still is, a gap in the local neighbourhood grocery market in the US. However, despite its extensive pre-research, from the get-go Tesco’s execution was off pitch: self service tills did not go down well with a consumer used to high service levels; a lack of vouchering and couponing alienated many price sensitive shoppers; and, an unfamiliarity with ready, convenience meals meant some part of the range were unsuited to local tastes. Soluble as these issues were, they were compounded by a downturn in the market which saw many American consumers turn to tried and trusted grocers, including hypermarkets like Walmart, where they knew they could save money on low price food. These same players also looked to exploit the neighbourhood market with a range of smaller, local formats; exerting pressure on Tesco and undermining its long term vision.

The bottom line is that Tesco probably bit off more than it could chew in the US. As in most mature western economies, to be successful mainstream grocery needs scale and volume. To attain scale and volume requires extensive investment. Given that the Fresh & Easy proposition was suboptimal, Tesco could not be certain that such investment would pay dividends. As such, the inevitably painful decision to cut and run was correct.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.