July 15, 2011 10:20 pm

Can Tesco freeze out the competition?

If the retailer wants to put one of its lasagnes more conveniently in my path, there’s no downside as far as I’m concerned

We are getting a new Tesco Express convenience store opposite the train station. This is exciting news, eliminating the extra three-minute walk from the station to the existing Tesco Express at the top of the High Street. There will now be three such stores within walking distance of my house which, you have to admit, is well, convenient.

Or is it? Surely Tesco can do better than this. Not one of these stores is within five minutes of my house. It will take at least eight minutes to reach the nearest, and once there I’ll only have to walk back again. You’d imagine a company such as Tesco would think about these things.

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Robert Shrimsley

The move makes sense, of course. The store will catch the station traffic which currently has only a manky independent grocer that’s pretty much only good for old veg, John West salmon and Fry’s Turkish delight. But it also speaks of a paranoia at Tesco not only that a customer might miss the opportunity to visit its stores but that its customers are so staggeringly lazy that the extra three minutes perambulation might prove too much. Tesco is hardly the first business to flood the zone; Starbucks is famous for it, but then if your coffee was as bad as Starbucks you’d want to crowd out Caffé Nero as well.

There is only one way this can end: Tesco in your house. They need to be there, under the stairs so you don’t go running off to the Spar across the street when you need something. Even that’s risky; best to have a small branch by the back door too. And another near your computer so you don’t decide to order elsewhere online. Of course, there are downsides; the overnight deliveries can be noisy and you might find yourself thinking you’ve got burglars. But after the second or third time of creeping downstairs with the boy’s cricket bat in your hands, you’ll probably relax into it. These home branches could evolve so you don’t even have to get off your fat arse but could contact them through the technological miracle known as yelling.

Let me stress that I am not a Tesco-hating obsessive. By and large, I’m a fan. Far better a clean, well-stocked supermarket with a reliable range of microwaveable meals than a miserable, cramped store with nothing but pilchards and Pot Noodle. If Tesco wants to put one of its Finest brand lasagnes more conveniently in my path, there’s no downside as far as I’m concerned.

Indeed perhaps we should be pleased these supermarkets are returning to the high street. Some will voice fears that this is simply a further step towards Tesco towns in which all independent retailers are throttled. But high streets are now so homogenised that frankly what do I care if Tesco engages in a death struggle with Greggs, Superdrug and Clinton Cards? The independent stores which survive will be those that build customer loyalty with better service or better produce; let Tesco crush the others.

Perhaps this is the answer to the big question over the future of the high street. Every other store could be a Tesco Express, a Sainsbury’s Local or an M&S Simply Food. That way you would never be more than a few feet from one of them. Once it has achieved saturation it could branch out into specialist areas: Tesco Butchers, Tesco Deli and Tesco Bakers, etc. It wouldn’t have bookshops and music shops and all the other stores whose products have migrated online but it would be like a high street in that you’d have to get wet walking from shop to shop and obviously you wouldn’t be able to park there.

Naturally, such uniformity would take away the pleasure of retail therapy. The only independent shops would be boutiques and those selling things no one needs like expensive essential oil burners and novelty toilet seats. Clearly these stores will have to be watched too in case they eat into valuable Tesco time.

At some point Tesco may want to move in to Tesco Bric-a-Brac or Tesco Random Gifts. They’d probably be a bit of loss leader but they’d add variety to the high street. And you know what they say, “Every little helps”.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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