Deborah Ross

The triumph of Tesco

Deborah Ross joins her mother on a trip down the aisles of Britain’s favourite food chain

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Deborah Ross joins her mother on a trip down the aisles of Britain’s favourite food chain

When I was growing up, my mother always went to Sainsbury’s, the Sainsbury’s on Ballards Lane, Finchley. I must have accompanied her sometimes because I can remember the marble counters, the rotating saw of the ham-slicer, turned by hand, and, strangely, hairnets. What she most remembers is that ‘for £7 a week I fed four children, one dog and a husband’. (I have no idea, by the way, how my father will feel on reading that he always came after the dog, but imagine he won’t be too surprised.) My mother was thought to be Sainsbury’s through and through. Cut her and she’d bleed orange and blue. My mother was thought to be as unassailably a Sainsbury’s person just as Sainsbury’s must have thought back then — we’re talking late Sixties and the Seventies — that it was unassailable itself. My mother went to Sainsbury’s on the same day at the same time every week, and when my brother got married on that day, he said in his wedding speech that he’d had to phone the shop first thing to say she wouldn’t be in so they didn’t put out a missing person’s bulletin. Everyone laughed. They thought he was joking. Also — and this is absolutely true, too — when I graduated from university I got a congratulations card signed by the ladies who worked behind the delicatessen counter in Sainsbury’s, Ballards Lane. This is how Sainsbury’s we were. But now? Now? My mum shops at Tesco. Who doesn’t?

The facts and figures are scary. Tesco has just announced pre-tax profits of a staggering £1.7 billion (while Sainsbury’s recently warned that profits for the year would fall below last year’s figure of £695 million). Tesco now takes £1 out of every £8 spent in British shops. If you don’t count non-food items, it’s £1 in every £4. Tesco sells more baby products than Boots and Mothercare combined, and more pharmaceutical products than Boots and Superdrug combined. It sells more chart CDs than HMV and Woolworth’s. It sells 4.4 per cent of all UK clothing. (‘I recently went to Tesco to buy some cheap gardening clothes,’ says a friend of my mother, ‘which I bought but then couldn’t wear, as they were too good for gardening.’) It sells TV/DVD combination tellies for £99, which is especially annoying, as I recently bought one elsewhere for £200. Soon Tesco will be running your bath and raising your children. A Finest upbringing, madam, or just a Value one?

The thing is, 30 years ago my mother, and almost everyone she knows, would not have shopped at Tesco. There was a Tesco on Ballards Lane, too, but we never went there. Tesco was not for people like us. Tesco was for the poor, the working classes, those who had to worry about every penny. There were no marble counters. The window display was just cans. On top of more cans. Via cans. With maybe a few more cans thrown in. It was pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap (as perhaps Dame Shirley Porter would later do with council houses in Westminster, although with a keener interest in the exact nature of the customer base). If supermarkets were holidays then, Sainsbury’s would have been a villa abroad while Tesco would have been a caravan in Rhyl, in the rain, with a cross muzzled dog. And, as a family, we didn’t do caravans in Rhyl with cross muzzled dogs. (Would a cross muzzled dog have come higher in my mother’s affections than my father? There is every possibility.) So what happened, mum? Well, she says, in 1985 Tesco opened a big store at Brent Park, just off the North Circular, in north London, and that was that. ‘It was convenient, it had a big car park so I didn’t have to drive endlessly around Ballards Lane, and the quality was surprisingly good, as good as Sainsbury’s but cheaper.’ Good food patently didn’t cost less at Sainsbury’s, and my mother has never been back since. As one of her friends, also a Sainsbury’s émigré, puts it, ‘Tesco has been very commercial whereas Sainsbury’s doesn’t seem to have done anything in recent years.’

Tesco has been frighteningly commercial. Tesco was the first to realise the value of out-of-town sites, which killed off high streets, and once it had killed them, was the first to move back into them with their ‘Metro’ stores. Yes, I hate it for that, too, but are you saying it’s not smart? Tesco was the first to offer online shopping, 24-hour shopping, two-for-ones, a Marks & Spencer-busting upmarket range, Finest, and loyalty cards which initially Sainsbury’s sneered at, but who doesn’t have one now? (As it happens, I find mine most useful for scraping the car windscreen on icy mornings.) Tesco also seduced the middle-class shopper largely, I suspect, because it realised that the middle-class shopper is, in fact, extremely price-conscious, whereas Sainsbury’s went blithely on assuming that reputation alone would be enough to carry it forward. It might be the same with Marks, actually, which traded on a reputation based on quality and Britishness, but then had to contract out to the Far East just like everyone else, which is the point at which it should have re-invented itself but somehow forgot. (Don’t get me started on Marks. My-mother-in-law gives me M&S vouchers every Christmas and I haven’t even spent them for two years. I just can’t be arsed going through rail upon rail of size-24 skirts in brown on the off-chance I might come across something a little more cheerful or less like something you could put up in a field and live in. Per Una? So nylon and mauve. Also, I’ve encountered better lighting and presentation in Eastern European department stores. But enough about Marks. This piece is about my Tesco vs Sainsbury’s theory, not my Marks one, and I’m not doing my Marks one and my Tesco vs Sainsbury’s one because, quite frankly, The Spectator does not pay enough for two theories, and I don’t do two-for-one offers.)

Now, with this price-conscious business, we’re not talking about the properly rich here. They’re a different story. They’ll go to Fortnum and Mason or a farmers’ market, which, I often think, is Fortnum and Mason held in the open air. But the middle classes aren’t like that. They won’t fly BA if they can get there by easyJet. My mother, for example, won’t buy a cucumber in Marks & Spencer for £1.40 because she knows she can get it in Tesco for 62p and it’ll taste the same (that is, of nothing. Just what is the point of cucumber?) We all want everything cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s a kind of madness. But while we want cheap, we don’t want any old cheap. Or Iceland cheap. (Iceland ...aghhh!) We want cheap in a certain environment, where organic fillet steak and poncy ready meals are available along with 8p baked beans. And we don’t want Sainsbury’s because its cheap simply isn’t as cheap as Tesco cheap for food that no longer has the edge when it comes to quality. Recently, a Which? survey of supermarket organic produce found that a typical basket from Sainsbury’s cost £45.25 whereas the same items from Tesco added up to £37.95. Waitrose’s was £46.81. Another friend of my mother‘s — my mother has a lot of friends, being a friendly sort of person who is generally good-natured and nicer to dogs than to husbands, which is never a bad thing — says, ‘Sainsbury’s are charging Waitrose prices but you’re not getting the Waitrose brand.’ Sainsbury’s took their eye off the ball, but their customers did not.

My mother takes me to her Tesco, which is now the one at Brent Cross, nearer than the Brent Park one. This was built in 1995, the same year that Tesco finally knocked Sainsbur y’s off the top spot, so they must have been feeling the pinch of her defection by then. The day before I had been to a Sainsbury’s (Whitechapel) for the first time in years, and it was fantastically depressing: the car-park ticket machine out of order and taped up; newspapers spilling everywhere; an electrical goods shelf that could only boast a Walkman in a battered box; a miserly organic section. I recently heard a schools inspector on the radio saying he could usually get the measure of a school the moment he walked in the door. Was it clean? Were you instantly greeted by good displays? Did it appear proud of itself? Sainsbury’s may well be the school no one wants their kids to go to any more. And Tesco? Bright, clean, orderly newspapers. A bugger to get round, though, as my mother usually shops here every Monday (8.45 a.m.) and this is not her day. So, four times per aisle, we’re accosted by astonished members of staff. ‘Mrs Ross, what are you doing here on a Thursday?’ I think we can safely assume that my mother feels at home here. I’d better not get married on a Monday.

I’m not a Tesco regular, so my mother shows me round proudly. She shows me the books section which sells historical romances with watercolours on the cover, but also The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Lovely Bones. I note, in the DVD section, that the film In America, which I’d considered buying in Sainsbury’s for £14.99, is on sale here for £9.99. I am a financially reckless person but even I can see that 50 per cent less is 50 per cent less. She talks me through the entire ‘Finest’ range. It’s fantastic, she says, and cheaper than Marks. No, she has never bought the Mediterranean Lamb Shanks with Vegetable Comfit and passed it off as her own at dinner parties. Absolute nonsense. No way.

The thing about Tesco is that while Waitrose and Marks are quite upmarket, and Asda and Safeway are quite downmarket (heaven knows what Sainsbury’s stands for any more, which may even be its problem), Tesco does somehow manage to cater for everybody. It’s villas and caravans, all in it together.