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September 20, 2005

On reasons not to copy Tesco

Tesco accused of bully-boy tactics as profits climb again

According to Vicki Hird, at Friends of the Earth: "Tesco's sensational growth is sucking the life out of communities, farmers, workers and the environment. The competition authorities should be embarrassed they have let things get this far and must act to curb the local and national monopoly of Tesco."

FoE is part of a campaign called breaking the armlock, set up to monitor and lobby for supermarkets to establish better farming and supply chain practices.

Tesco likes to claim it is British Farming's Biggest Customer, but in many cases that means supporting the growth of agri-businesses, not farms.

Sainbury's could instead aspire to being British Farming's Best Customer. The new organic campaign is a good start. Food from small farms tends to taste better. Ask any top chef. Someone like Jamie Oliver, perhaps...

Of course Sainsbury is not all sweetness and light but if it wants to create a position as a place to come and try something new, why not start with rethinking the relationship between customers, farms and supermarkets?   

There are those that would say its all about customer choice, and cheap shopping. Does anyone else remember watching the chap from Scolarest, the company that feeds our nation's children, tell Jamie Oliver the same thing on Jamie's School Dinners? Ah yes the delights of Turkey Twizzlers and the market-driven economy.

Supermarkets and fast food restaurants don't just respond to buying behaviours, they create them. That is the lesson, and that is why we will continue to push for Sainsbury to make a difference by being different.  Why not sponser a new TV show by Jamie looking into environmental issues surrounding British food. It might make more sense than multimillion pound advertising budgets...

Posted by James Governor on September 20, 2005 at 02:07 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 21, 2005 7:08:53 AM


To me, one of the biggest flaws in Sainsbury's strategy is its continued reliance on Jamie Oliver, who as the most recent cooking survey showed, isn't actually regarded as a great cook. He's a wide boy, he's proud of it, and I think he honestly turns more people off food (and off Sainsbury's) than he makes want to go there. He certainly makes me want to go somewhere else. The recent top ten cookbooks list? No Oliver. No Nigella. No Ainsley. And people noticed this list - Roast chicken and other stories is suddenly a hot hot seller. Nigella is majorly on the wane, thank heavens.

Get someone who is more food than flash and it might give people a bit more confidence.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 20, 2005 7:57:28 PM

Haven't they dropped Jamie in favour of Kelly Holmes? To more important issues.

It's a great idea putting together the virtuous triangle of producer>retailer>consumer but I can't see how it works.

The reality is that farmers' margins across Europe are squeezed until the pips squeak. In France over 2003-4, the price of pigs dropped to a point where it became uneconomical for Brittany farmers to produce. When foot and mouth hit Mayenne, there was no state assistance for farmers.

In Spain, there was no assistance from the government when an unexpected frost and snow in Valencia in the winter of 2004 wiped out hectares of oranges just at the time they were coming to harvest. Part of the reason is the ongoing belief that concrete is better than a sustainable resource.

I believe my colleagues in practice in North Yorkshire are still feeling the pain of foot and mouth from their sheep farming clients.

So IMHO, any talk of engaging farmers has to start with the economics of farming. When we lived in France all our veg was grown using organic principles. We had to as there is so little of it in the stores. What makes the real difference in taste wasn't the extra shit we piled on the courgettes, but the time difference between picking and eating. Hence the Oliver ad - 48 hours and they're avialable to you and all that.

It's more complicated than that still. In the UK, there's a 365 day 'season' provided you're prepared to pay for it. Not so in France and Spain where we eat according to the season. In both countries there are what in the UK you'd call farmers markets - everywhere, every day and thriving. Supermarkets here are for groceries and meat (and sometimes fish if you're away from the coast.)

The point I'm getting to is that markets are complex. Could you realistically have the kind of conversation James is proposing with Canarian tomato producers? I seriously doubt it. And the systems that support '365, 24 hour fresh as you can get it' systems are unbelievably complex. There would be a lot unravelling of things that do work in the consumer's interests.

In addition though, you'd have to consider the nation's apparent obsession with fast or pre-prepared food. I'd be surprised if there is a majority of people who do as we do here in Spain and cook from scratch each day, every day. Do you abandon the fast food junkies? Not likely, it's too lucrative a market. Supermarkets will argue that, in the case of pre-prepared food, they're tapping into the changed lifestyle of busy people.

And all of this before we get to the supply chain issues of the brand producers and retailers. And therein lies a thorny problem. (Maybe for another time).

What retailers can do is engage with the customer on their needs and wants. And here James is spot on - supermarkets are interested in customer behaviour or response to offerings. They're not interested in customer conversations of the kind this and other blogs are suggesting.

Customers won't always know what they want but they may have a fair idea of what they don't want. Do, for instance, Asda customers really like the Wal-Mart makeover? Last time I was in the UK I thought it sucked. Do I think Morrisons' 'Market Street' looks like a cynical setup designed to make you feel cozy. Certainly. Do I think BHS prepacked food looks attractive - damned right - as long as I don't mind the eye-watering prices. And so it goes...

As to the Jamie/Nigella thing - if they've had their day, so be it. But, they did introduce a nation to quality food, simply prepared and tasting great. Something that curious though it may sound, is taken for granted in France and Spain. Their recipes may be passé, but they're bombproof. That has to be a good thing.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Sep 21, 2005 12:21:58 AM

At it again. Another thought. This is a company that exhibits structural issues common in this sector but with a twist. The Sainsbury family is not long out the picture. It takes time to work through a culture that is siloed according to family 'rank.' If it can cross that particular chasm thorugh initiatives like the staff thang, then it has made a heroic start. Keeping the momentum going is another matter. For that, they need a Chief Blog Officer.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Sep 21, 2005 1:32:05 AM

relying on stars can be a dangerous strategy, its true.

but more food than flash? seems a bit harsh louise, given that young mr oliver managed to start a national debate, and institute some real change, concerning the food we feed children at state schools. this from a man that clearly stated he is going to send his kids to public school.

i call it making a difference. if that's your definition of flash so be it.

of course there are other chefs that can help you learn how to cook a chicken. but jamie does love his food, and conveys that enthusiasm clearly, whether or not he rides a vespa. i am with dennis on that.

Your claim that Jamie is putting people off is interesting. As far as i know Sainsbury food sales have improved somewhat recently, and particular recommendations by oliver have made sales skyrocket - asparagus and parmesan is the first example i can think of.

you know what i am looking forward to? an idea on 173 that you approve of, Louise... :-)

And as for you Dennis - this feedback, like louise's is very much appreciated. I appreciate there are some economics that would seem to mitigate against supporting smaller farms, and regionalism. you didnt even bring up the possible end of EU farm subsidies. but the key point, as you say, we're agreed on: a smarter conversation would be good for consumers and supermarkets alike.

Posted by: james governor | Sep 21, 2005 9:45:52 AM

If you don't think i'm contributing, why don't you ban me again?

I do confess, I'm mostly here because I find it amusing. It is an interesting concept that a blog that's now up to 100 readers a day thinks it is responsible for Sainsbury's new branding strategy (Its like they've been reading 173 all along!), but there you go.

As for Oliver, yes, he started a national conversation on school food. Good for him. That doesn't actually make me think he's a good chef, and I could care less about his Vespa. School dinners was investigational journalism, and you don't suddenly see the nation hankering over what Jeremy Paxman sugggests to eat for tea.

As for this thought that Jamie and Nigella were the ones to "introduce a nation to quality food, simply prepared and tasting great" I suggest that a) you've never heard of Delia Smith who was around long before either of them, or Mrs Beaton who was around even before Delia, b) you've never tried to follow a Nigella recipe, which generally involves junk/comfort food and ingredients which are difficult to find and c) don't consider a roast chicken quality, simple or tasting great, which is something that reveals a lot about your cooking and makes me suspect that you aren't too hot in the kitchen.

Now, onto the idea that 153,000 workers should be given their own blog. 1) If they want one, which means they have time (are you going to suggest paying them for the time it takes to cook and blog about it? Because if so, that is going to add massive costs to the bottom line in a cutthroat industry), a computer with net access (again, who is paying?) and the ability to write well about food such that the public would want to read it (and of course if it is going to be about marketing for Sainsburys, then "don't buy these, they're rubbish!" isn't going to be allowed, so it will have to be chaperoned somewhere (Note: more expenses in paying the supervisor), then of course they can have them. Blogger.com will let them have one for free and give them the webspace. 2) Food reviews scattered either in one place or all over the web is asking for a lot of people to wade through it when you've got 153,000 people doing it. Just how many ways can you make sprouts? I'd prefer to go to a reputable cookery site, such as the BBC or epicurious.com than read the paid shills of Sainsbury's workers, particualrly if the cost of my food at all levels goes up due to having to pay them to do it.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 21, 2005 1:13:47 PM

actually I do greatly appreciate your feedback. Its important that ideas are critiqued, in order that they might thrive.

I for one am very pleased we're amusing you. That's excellent. I like amusing blogs.

I have explictly thanked you for your contributions before so I am not sure why you assume my position has changed. Far from it, you are evidently an important and valued member of the 173 community, which as you so rightly point out it quite small.

As far as I know we have not banned anyone, so that accusation is quite leftfield and not very helpful.

we certainly don't credit ourselves with influencing Sainbury new branding strategy. We have not done so and won't do so.

I don't need to respond on Dennis behalf. I am a big Delia fan. But I think its pretty clear that the standard of food in this country is improving of late - partly due to media interest in the sector.

Regarding the blogging by employee ideas, we have already seen obvious benefits in some sectors - notably IT and software development. We happen to believe food retail may also be amenable.

Posted by: james governor | Sep 21, 2005 1:33:32 PM

Mr Trenholm took it upon himself to unilaterally ban me from the site. Check with him to verify. I e-mailed Max about it, but haven't heard back so just changed my log in site, easy peasy. Suddenly I'm an important and valued member, but gosh can't I find anything I like? That statement was a bit off putting generally.

The statement was made that "It is just like they've been reading 173 all along." This seemed to me like taking credit for teh new branding strategy.

You obviously do believe that the food retail sector may be amendable, but in citing the IT and software industries as places where this has benefited, you are talking about the very industries that create, improve, and coordinate (or not) software and online communities. Computer tekkies talking about computer tek while on computers.

To apply it to the food industry, I think you should have people who cook at all levels in cooking classes talking while they cook. Which I happen to think is a great way to improve food sales, etc. Once I know how to use XYZ veggie I'll do it, and what's more I'll trust it having done it myself and watched someone else do it without the magic of highly edited television. ("And here's one I prepared earlier!") Sifting through 153000 food blogs of varying quality doesn't hold the same appeal.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 21, 2005 1:49:56 PM

like i say, your ideas are good. thanks and please keep them coming.

what is your favourite retailer and what do you like about them? what do you like about Sainbury? Dislike? would like to see more of?

Posted by: james governor | Sep 21, 2005 1:57:19 PM

Just to clarify - I did instruct Typepad to ban comments from Louise's previous IP address, not for anything said here, but in reaction to a string of comments on my personal blog, which became progressively more insulting , the last of which I deleted.

From that comment, I deduced that Louise was heading to 173 next, so I banned the IP here as well. At the time, I will be honest, my blood was up, and it was indeed a unilateral action, so don't blame James. Louise, if you want to clear the air with me personally - which I would like very much - you have my email address and phone number.

As for your latest round of comments on 173, that you have taken the trouble to find another way to comment - easy peasy or otherwise - means that you have something to say and we should and we are taking that seriously. I disagree with quite a bit of what you have to say, but all here have been insightful and relevant comments. By contributing to this conversation without insulting others, you have made yourself part of the community. James has been especially careful to thank you for each comment, even with those he disagrees.

So do keep the comments coming. Like Johnnie says:

A conversation is much more than a surface level swapping of ideas and opinions. For me great conversations allow both parties to be influenced and affected by each other in a continuous, unfolding process.

So on the substance of your comment:

The point about 153,000 bloggers is a good one. Do you force everyone on staff to keep a blog? Do you pay them by the post? Do you dictate what can and cannot be said? All interesting questions. I think James point about the way the tech industry has done it - Sun, Microsoft etc - goes some way towards answering them, but not all the way. As you says:

you are talking about the very industries that create, improve, and coordinate (or not) software and online communities. Computer tekkies talking about computer tek while on computers.

Not only that, but I think we can assume that a lot of tech bloggers are pretty well paid, so they can happily blog for a hobby, whereas I am sure a lot of people work at Sainsbury's just to make ends meet. And that - as you have suggested - has serious implications for whether or not the Sainsbury's employee has the resources to even get online.

That does not mean a Sainsbury's blog strategy is necessarily a non-starter - it just pinpoints the areas of particular concern. The last thing the employees need is another damned "initiative" heaped on them - commenter Materfamilias probably has something to say about that - so no doubt we will all be giving some though to the red flags you have raised.

Meanwhile, can you see absolutely no benefit in a blog strategy for Sainsbury's? And if Sainsbury's decides to pursue blogging or some sort of social software strategy - what advice would you give them?

As for your comment about sifting through 153,000 blogs, in order to find the right recipe - I think I read too many blogs already, so I share the concern. There's all sorts of issues that this raises - how to promote mass adoption of RSS, so that readers can more effectively manage their blog usage, is just one highly relevant issue. On the other hand, it's an adage in the blogosphere that bloggers are not famous for fifteen minutes, they are famous to fifteen people, precisly because blogs find a niche audience who read that blog and few others.

And that may not be for you. A large number of people will ignore blogs and stick with "reputable" sources. And it's good that you come here to remind us of that.

Incidentally - do you buy books from Amazon? Do you read the customer reviews? That is just another kind of social software. It's the kind of conversation that I see could be encouraged around food - not jsut recipes, but things like food miles, organic production, local farming etc. If not by blogging, do you think this conversation could be had by other means, online and off? Would you get involved in a conversation like that?

And now there are content networks springing up like 9 Rules network for example. Do you think some kind network, agregating the best of the Sainsbury's blogs could become a site which you visit?

Finally - the quote from my last post:

Good Lord - it's as if they have been reading 173 all along!

My arrogance knows no bounds... that, or I need to take my tongue out of my cheek. Of course, I do not claim a hand in anything Sainsbury's does right now, but I can have a bit of fun, can't I?

Max, incidentally, has resigned from the 173 project, at least until the end of the year, to complete his PhD. We should post something about that.

Posted by: Adrian Trenholm | Sep 21, 2005 3:57:27 PM

PS Louise also said:

To apply it to the food industry, I think you should have people who cook at all levels in cooking classes talking while they cook. Which I happen to think is a great way to improve food sales, etc. Once I know how to use XYZ veggie I'll do it, and what's more I'll trust it having done it myself and watched someone else do it without the magic of highly edited television.

I agree with Louise completely on this one - and it seems like a natural fit with the "try something different" strategy. I suggested in-store cookery lessons last month:

For example, why not host cookery classes in its stores? Of course, the store offers recipe cards, but they are dumped on a rack at the end of the aisle in a "take it or leave it" fashion. Is that food-focus? A real live person doing small lessons throughout the day on something seasonal - like making jam - would be much more of an attention grabber, and much more likely to rouse the dormant cook in all of us.

Louise, do you want to take this idea a bit further for us?

Posted by: Adrian Trenholm | Sep 21, 2005 4:21:06 PM

Mr Trenholm:
I do have your e-mail address and phone number from your website. However, given your prior failure to e-mail me, and in fact do an end run to contact my employer instead,nor did you bother to inform me of the ban(s) until I cc:ed you on the e-mail to Max I just don't really feel inclined to extend you the courtesy that you failed to do so for me. So much for that. I don't know who's in charge at 173, so I will assume that anyone with the technical power to ban speaks for the whole site. The fact I found an easy peasy way around it speaks more to the fact that I thought you had no technical idea what you were doing than it does anything else. And indeed, you had it backwards. I was at 173 and directed to your website and not the other way around.

Moving on to other topics.
My favorite retailer: for food? Waitrose. Quality produce, generally reasonable prices, but I do shop around for things that are in season to get the best prices for the best quality. And no Jamie Oliver.

I really don't see the benefits to a blog strategy for Sainsburys. What, precisely, do you want them to blog about? Food? How many different products? 153000 employees? How many different blogs, which you admit you read too many of already. How to keep the products, blogs, etc on message? What would that message be anyway? Who pays for it?

The types of conversations you suggest are already occuring all around us, whether on food, recipes, on food miles, organic produce, etc. They're just not occuring from Sainsburys and to a certain extent I don't think they should anyway. As a commercial supplier with a vested interest, I'm just NOT going to trust what Sainsburys has to say about their food miles, particularly as their "it gets to the store so quick" ads shows trucks heading down the motorway. You can't trust that vested interest, nor should you.

As for the cookery classes, I think having someone doing the same thing in and out all day is either a) going to be too simple for people to find it new or interesting, or b) is going to be too complex for the time they have with the person in the store. I would instead schedule actual nights in the community. Learn to cook blah blah blah! Come learn all about different types of British cheese! Things to do with mangoes! The people who are interested will turn up. if it is good, word of mouth will spread about the ingredients. I used to have long discussions with the cheese guy at my local shop and he'd always get me to try new things, some of which I liked and some of which i didn't. Leave the notes in front of the product, not just some recipe card somewhere.

What do I hate about Sainsburys? Go in on a Saturday afternoon. Just TRY to find nice fresh fruit. Impossible. So I go to Waitrose! They can't even incentivise people into going. The card? Next to useless. Takes forever to earn anything. My Boots card means that I go there for my sarnies even though it is a block furhter away from work than Sainsburys.

As for Amazon, I have nothing against social software per se, but I take the reviews with a grain and a half of salt. I usually know whether or not I want to buy a book there when I go on the site. I order, and then I'm out and gone.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 21, 2005 6:07:39 PM

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