For the vociferous band of Tesco-haters, waiting for the supermarket giant to slip up on one of its own homogenised banana skins has been a long and frustrating business. OK, you can clutch on to the failure of Tesco to achieve the 4 per cent year-on-year increase in sales during the Christmas period which analysts had predicted (it only managed 3.1 per cent). You can point out that its shares have plunged by 20 per cent since December — but which retailer’s shares haven’t? You can crow that a remarkable number of its executives over the past year have been scattering to jobs in rival businesses (one of them, dammit, to Sainsbury).
But it is all pretty desperate stuff. Tesco still takes £1 in every £8 spent in shops by British consumers. Moreover, in ten years it has successfully built up a network of 1,376 stores outside the UK, which last year generated £564 million worth of profit.
It can’t even seem to bruise itself by stumbling headlong into the US market — a notorious graveyard for overconfident British retailers, as Sainsbury, Dixons and Marks & Spencer can attest. Tesco’s Fresh & Easy convenience stores in California, 55 of which have been opened since November, haven’t yet come a cropper as many pundits gleefully predicted. In spite of one broker’s suggestion that the stores are not performing as hoped, Tesco has been bullish enough to press ahead with a second, vast West Coast distribution centre.
It doesn’t even seem as if Tesco is going to get much of a rap round the knuckles from the Competition Commission, whose two-year investigation into the supermarket sector is due to conclude in May. Speculation that Tesco would be made to sell many of the town-centre convenience stores it has acquired over the past decade appears to be wide of the mark: the Commission’s provisional findings, published last October, ruled that the large supermarkets’ foray into convenience stores is ‘not having an adverse effect on competition’.
So why, then, do I still believe I have detected a ‘sell’ signal which could just possibly mark the high noon of the Tesco empire before its long, slow, miserable decline? Admittedly, it’s a bit of a personal ‘sell’ signal: I have suddenly developed a deep and irrational loathing for Tesco. Not only will I not set foot in the place, I wouldn’t care if the nearest alternative supermarket was in Penzance: I would still rather drive there than go to Tesco.
This matters because I am far from a natural Tesco-hater. I have happily shopped there for many years, and was even once a Clubcard-holder. I have spent much of the past decade defending the company in the public prints against anti-globalisers, militant farmers, eco-warriors and what have you. But still I won’t go there. In fact there is virtually nothing the wretched store could do to get me through its doors again.
Frankly, I don’t suppose this will cause much of a quake in Tesco’s boardroom. I suspect they will figure they can just about do without the £100 or so my wife and I spend on groceries every week. But that isn’t the point. The point is that this is how retail empires collapse: with silent, barely detectable changes in sentiment among their customers. My loathing of Tesco is all the more poignant because there is no obvious reason for it. I haven’t found an earwig in a double-chocolate muffin; I haven’t been clamped in one of its car parks. I haven’t even been short-changed: in fact, on what turned out to be one of my final visits I was long-changed, and to my regret ever since I gave the money back.
No, my aversion is much more subtle than that. Suddenly I can’t stand that ghastly blue and red logo, which reminds me of the Co-op in the 1970s. Like the Daily Mail, I hate the way every tree for half a mile around any Tesco store is strewn with fragments of its plastic bags. I hate the smell of its in-store bakery. I can’t stand its speckled orange flooring, and the way all its stores now have to be cheap imitations of Norman Foster’s terminal at Stansted airport. Funnily enough, none of these things bothered me at all until about six months ago, when I decamped to Waitrose — or Sainsbury when it happens to be handier.
My sudden aversion to Tesco reminds me of my disgust a few years ago — long before Jeremy Paxman joined the fray with his rant about pants — that Marks & Spencer had tried to make itself fashionable, at the expense of the usual, frumpy clothes which I went there to buy. Rather than just walking out I should of course have put my disgust to work by borrowing a million pounds and shorting the shares, which rapidly sank. The lesson is that it is easy to think you are alone in your sudden changes in feelings for a shop, but the chances are that if you are feeling something, then others are too.
Though I wouldn’t expect this to impress Frank Luntz, the US pollster employed by Newsnight, I decided to set up a makeshift focus group by emailing a dozen friends in Cambridge, one of England’s premier Tesco towns, to see if anyone shared my feelings. I can’t say that everyone in my admittedly narrow, middle-class sample was on a Tesco boycott, but one remarkable finding did emerge: women aren’t going to Tesco any more. They are sending their husbands out to shop, and the husbands go to Tesco only because it is the nearest store. To pick out a couple of typical responses: ‘I can’t stand the place — I send Simon on his bike’; ‘I go willingly, but Sophie thinks it’s like the American mall from a zombie movie.’
I don’t expect that my observations will be taken seriously on the brokers’ desks, but I’m convinced enough that I would sell every Tesco share I owned — if only I owned some. When the last few Tesco superstores are sold off to a chain of cheap and cheerful bowling alleys around the year 2030, just remember that you read about the decline of Tesco here first.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 22, 2008