Amid the shock horror about mighty Tesco’s faltering sales, there was one particularly interesting feature. No, not the stock market slashing share value by £5bn. Nor the fact Christmas six-week sales to January 7 were down 2.3%. For me, it was the idea from Philip Clarke himself that it might reconsider its emphasis on out-of-town hypermarkets.
People like me have been urging an end to this crazy, unsustainable version of food shopping for years. It’s premised on oil. It devastates towns. It demeans civic life. It puts us all in tin boxes on wheels. It cuts eye contact. It’s not part of any definition of sustainable living. It has, however, sustained Big Food profits. Until now.
Sir Terry Leahy led Tesco down that path, but on foundations laid by others. It’s Mr Clarke’s role now to help chart a different course. Some argue this is impossible for a juggernaut like Tesco.
Submerged in analyses of what’s gone wrong for Tesco is what’s wrong with Tesco. Tesco staff numbers per store are down.Go into the Co-op or Waitrose and you get helpful people. Go into a Tesco Extra and you’re in a faceless tin cathedral. A dehumanised experience. Go into local, smaller stores, even those owned by the big fascias, and you’re in eye contact world. There’s a chance you might recognise the person at the till again.
Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons all have published plans for huge retail expansion. Tesco plans 2.2 million sq ft more this year, next year and in 2013-14. The question now is whether this will change. Can rats (even giant ones) jump off the financial treadmill when the Stock Exchange demands continued acceleration?
This fits questions now being asked about the future direction of capitalism itself, right across the political spectrum. This is more fundamental than the mere role of bankers. For we who think, eat and breathe food, this requires a return to first principles. Does food come to the people or people go to the food? Tesco chose the latter. Is food for health or for wealth? It chose the latter. Is it about sustaining the planet or profits? Ditto.
Well done, Mr Clarke. Keep thinking aloud. More depends on the answers than your bonus.