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.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.