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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle