In his short time in charge of Tesco, Phil Clarke has already shown he’s one for straight talking.
While other retailers have been quick to blame the market for their underperformance, Clarke didn’t shy away from admitting Tesco hadn’t been at its best in the UK in Tuesday’s results statement. “We can do better,” he said.
The strength of Tesco’s growth in Asia and its impressive recovery in central Europe have masked the fact its performance in the UK has been going off the boil. Having peaked at 31.2% in August 2008, its share in the 12 week Kantar grocery data is now 30.2%. Clarke will know he can’t let that figure to slip below 30%.
In non-food the issues are if anything even more serious, and a relentless emphasis on price overlooks the fact that in discretionary categories like clothing the customer has to be excited about the product if she’s going to buy. Price alone isn’t enough.
What’s happened is that in the pursuit of growth in new channels, both here and overseas, Tesco has lost some of the Zen-like focus on what made it number one by miles in the UK. It offers a highly functional, good value shopping experience in both food and non-food, but what made it great was the ability to make the customer feel special, to be on their side and understand their needs whether they were shopping for Finest or for Value.
There’s not much flair about the experience these days, while all its rivals have upped their game. A Morrisons or Sainsbury’s store shouts an enthusiasm for food that you don’t get in a Tesco, while Asda has been winning the publicity battle over price.
The marketing magic of Tim Mason has been missed while he’s been preoccupied in the US, and with the ambitious goal of breaking even by the end of the 2012/3 financial year still being maintained, Fresh & Easy is going to take up a lot of time and management attention over the next year.
Clarke’s appointment of Richard Brasher to run the UK business is a wise move and will give the core operation a renewed focus. Clubcard brings Tesco a huge advantage when it comes to customer insight and understanding, and it needs to use that not just to relentlessly target offers, but to find out what customers want from their shopping experience and make them love Tesco again.
Tesco’s international story remains compelling, and one that UK plc can be proud of. But Clarke knows that won’t count for much if the core business isn’t in the best of health.