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.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

Photo: Getty
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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.