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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity