Tesco knows what its problems are: it just can't fix them

Today's results were not great.

Despite the profit squeeze suffered in 2012/13, there was a sense that Tesco was on the road to recovery. The end of the financial year had signalled an improving trend, with the implication that the strategy put in place by Chief Executive Phil Clarke was starting to bear fruit. However, these results demonstrate that the view Tesco had put the worst of its troubles behind it was somewhat premature.

The horse meat furore has undoubtedly played a significant role in derailing the improving trend, just as the business was starting to once more gather momentum. Despite only having a small number of affected products, the retailer was very much at the centre of the negative fallout from the scandal. Whereas Sainsbury’s and Morrisons were able to spin the episode into a positive, highlighting their product quality and supply chain transparency, for Tesco it merely raised some awkward questions and damaged shopper perceptions of the Tesco brand.

Indeed, this is reflected in the performance of Tesco’s food categories, where a positive and improving LFL trend was achieved in all food categories bar frozen and chilled convenience foods – in other words, those most associated with the horsemeat contamination. Although the retailer has now taken significant steps to address this, consumer trust is of course much harder to re-build than it is to lose.

With food having hit a hurdle, the ongoing decline of general merchandise becomes more pressing once again. Although clothing remains strong, the exposure of the business to the turbulent consumer electronics sector in particular is a major drag on performance. Tesco’s goal is to shift business from low-margin, low-growth categories to higher-margin, higher-growth categories; an admirable aim but not easy to implement.

In fact, this is the crux of Tesco’s problem; its challenges are much easier to identify than they are to fix. In non-food, for example it will re-launch its range and re-configure space in larger stores, but this will take time to produce significant results. Similarly, attempting to overhaul the consumer experience, whether through more appealing branding or introducing new features, such as restaurants and bakeries, to stores, is the kind of step that takes years, rather than months, to properly execute. Therefore, there could well be a few more bumps in the road to recovery.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.