One Tesco division that has done well recently is its Express c-store chain, which caters in different ways for local shopping needs.
When it rains it pours and the weather at Tesco over the past few months has been little short of tropical, culminating in a £250m overstatement of profits owing to an accounting error.
That came on the back of yet another 2014 profit warning, a sign that Tesco’s stores are failing to appeal to shoppers as they once did.
New chief executive Dave Lewis will certainly have been looking at the store portfolio and wondering if the ship is heading in the right direction.
One Tesco division that has done well is its Express c-store chain. A visit to the Express branch at St Margarets, on the fringes of Twickenham, southwest London, or the Philpot Lane store in the City of London might go some way towards reassuring Lewis that at least some things remain on course.
These are two stores that head of design Simon Threadkell says are intended to deal with very different shopping missions.
Tesco Express, Philpot Lane
Target shopper City workers
Products Food to go
In the City of London in the small thoroughfare that is Philpot Lane in EC3 you’ll find a Tesco Express that is an almost entirely different beast from its sister formats. This is less than a quarter of the size of the Twickenham Express and, like that store, it is an exercise in catering for a highly specific demographic.
In this instance, the store is a small ‘grab and go’ emporium that squeezes in a surprisingly large amount of prepared food. The emphasis is on time throughout, with card-only self-serve tills, a Fred’s Food onstruction counter serving anything from calorific doughnuts to healthy salads and the meal deal message being punched home at every opportunity.
It is also more deli-like than a standard supermarket, with a blacked-out ceiling void from which cable-trays and theatre-style lighting are suspended and dark wood cladding covers the surfaces.
Exposed brick, dark metal frames and light-boxes add to the contemporary feel of the interior and give it something of the feel of a local sandwich bar-cum-cheap eaterie of the kind found across this part of the capital.
By reputation, City workers are time-poor and this is about offering something quick at lunchtime and not much else, with the exception of a selection of wines and beers, which could function as ‘carry-outs’ for the same evening.
Tesco Express, St Margarets
Target shopper Two-day top-up shopper
Products Prepared meals, ingredients and household items
Ambience Neighbourhood supermarket
The Twickenham store is focused on top-up shopping, but a rather different top-up from the “we’ve run out of bread and bananas, could you get some while you’re out?” variety.
Instead, this is for the shopper who might normally head for a much larger superstore because the smaller branches lack the product range needed for a two or three-day top-up.
Therefore, this store has elements of the superstore and Express formats, but lies somewhere between the two.
It is worthwhile considering the location. St Margarets is a largely residential area roughly halfway between Twickenham and Richmond. There are a handful of shops clustered around the railway station – the Tesco Express is one of them, and that’s about it. For shoppers on foot therefore, this store is the only credible grocery option and it offers the chance to do something rather more than adding to existing larder provisions.
But what’s actually different about it? At 5,000 sq ft it’s bigger than a standard Express store. Size matters, and while there is the usual emphasis on prepared fresh food, ‘meal deal on the go’ and bite-sized portions of popular lines, there is also a much greater selection of basic ingredients.
Lessons from big stores
All of this is coupled with a substantial corner towards the back of the shop that is devoted to beauty, health and skincare. Look at the perimeter frieze above this, which takes the form of a long light-box with graphics, and it is apparent that much of the thinking that informs the graphics package and layout in this store has been taken from much larger branches.
There is even a reference in the bakery area to ‘the Bakery Project’, something that was first seen at the revamped store in Watford last year. The same trend can be seen around the left-hand perimeter wall of the chilled prepared food area, which boasts a graphic reading “The City Kitchen”, again an import and this time from an area within the revamped Chelmsford store, also unveiled in 2013.
It is clear that each in-store area is not taken in isolation, but instead takes lessons from bigger stores and applies them to new spaces. It is, in effect, a highly limited and specific form of rollout that involves creating modular in-store elements and then applies them to a broader canvas.
And when the shopping’s done, there’s a Harris + Hoole coffee shop next door. This may be part-owned by Tesco but you wouldn’t know it, so finely attuned is it to the capuccino-loving class native to this affluent part of London.
It is also perhaps worth noting that at a time when it has been reported that a number of Harris + Hoole outlets in London are being closed, where conditions are right the roll-out continues. Certainly, on the day of visiting, a Saturday, all seats in this ‘artisanal’ cafe were taken and there was a queue at the counter.
Turning the supertanker
The two stores could hardly be less alike and each seeks to provide for shoppers on widely differing shopping missions. One of the statements that erstwhile chief executive Terry Leahy was fond of making was that everything that Tesco does “is driven by our customers”.
These two stores do appear to be an embodiment of that. Some might say that the problem for Tesco is that is hasn’t done this kind of listening in enough places in the UK of late.
Turning a supertanker is the other analogy that is also frequently applied to the world’s third largest retailer.
Philpot Lane and the St Margarets Express stores are at least evidence that something is being done with the rudder, although it may be a long while before its effect is felt.