Tesco has lost its first-mover advantage, says Rachel Barnes

Development of a £1bn premium own brand and rapid expansion into non-food have propelled Tesco to almost double the market share of either Asda or Sainsbury. But has Tesco lost the leading edge in its latest campaign, Tesco Sport, which is launched on Monday (September 12) and bears an uncanny resemblance to a rival scheme?
Even to the trained eye, Tesco’s voucher-based equipment giveaway scheme is virtually a re-badged version of Sainsbury’s Active Kids initiative, which kicked off in March and ended in June. Both schemes offer one voucher for every £10 spent in-store that can be redeemed for sports equipment or sports-related activities, such as coaching sessions from Tesco and ‘experiences’ such as scuba diving from Sainsbury.
Both schemes are fronted by sporting celebrities: Kelly Holmes for Sainsbury and the trio of Paula Radcliffe, Jason Robinson and Frank Lampard for Tesco. And, crucially, both schemes are trying their best to show the community and, most importantly, mothers that these supermarkets care about the health of their children.
This week, Sainsbury said Active Kids will have donated £17m of equipment and activity sessions. The scheme has reached more than 25,000 schools, generating an average of £754-worth of kit for each. “Active Kids has been a phenomenal success, so it’s no surprise Tesco should try to follow. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says a spokeswoman.
Tesco marketing director Tim Mason disputes Sainsbury’s claims that it trumped Tesco. “We decided to do this long before Sainsbury launched its scheme. We could have pulled it at that point but took the view to go ahead. This autumn’s launch of Tesco Sport has been planned in our budget for the past year. Sainsbury basically copied out Computers for Schools scheme anyway.”
He insists that Tesco did not deliberately time the launch to take advantage of the fact that Active Kids will be off Sainsbury’s agenda until next March.
Tesco is targeting 35,000 schools and sports clubs with a DVD to explain the benefits of joining up to Tesco Sport. Although Mason will not be drawn on how
many he anticipates will sign up, he is quick to quote the figures for Computers for Schools, which has 28,000 signed up and has given away £92m worth of equipment since its inception 14 years ago.
Mason also defends the value of Tesco’s multimillion-pound voucher scheme, despite shoppers having to spend £160 before earning the cheapest product - a wooden-handled skipping rope. He says the initiative was a direct result of what its customers had asked for, but adds that people need to keep things in perspective. “I’m not going to overclaim on its behalf. Of course it’s not the biggest thing in the world, but it is still offering something for nothing. People wouldn’t come in and pay £10 for a voucher or spend £160 on a skipping rope, no, but to get something free with their shopping gives them that little bit extra.”
Sainsbury’s scheme doesn’t appear to offer the greatest incentives in terms of value either, with its cheapest product - a durable plastic skipping rope - costing 24 vouchers. However, where Sainsbury believes its scheme is a cut above is in Active Kids’ direct link with fruit and vegetables. As well as the standard one voucher for £10, shoppers receive bonus vouchers for every £5 spent on fruit and veg.
“This extra incentive offered by Sainsbury is a great idea,” says Toni Steer, a nutritionist at the Medical Research Council. “I’m not sure why Tesco isn’t doing the same thing; it would have reinforced the healthy eating message. It would be interesting to see whether people were incentivised to actually buy more fruit and veg from Sainsbury during Active Kids.Tesco, on the other hand, won’t be able to make that same measurement.”
According to Sainsbury, total sales of fresh produce rose 10.3% during the campaign. Gavin Rothwell, senior retail analyst at Verdict Research, believes that both supermarkets will receive tangible benefits. “I think Tesco may have the upper hand with the back-to-school period, though, as it means schools can begin collecting at the start of the school year and have the equipment in the same year.”
But in the end there can only be one winner, says Rothwell. “Tesco may have the bigger budget, but Sainsbury has that first-mover advantage. It was there first.”