Tesco: Where Good Neighbours Are Good Business?

Tesco and the other huge supermarkets want to show socially responsible, how green and cuddly, they are. The test will be in how much they actually deliver – and the power to encourage them to achieve this lies much more than some have so far conceded with the communities in which they are located.
The ‘charm offensive’ by Tesco can’t be faulted. Their new 10-point plan says they are going to be ‘green and good’, and to blend in more with their retail neighbours, at least for the Tesco Express outlets. That’s genuinely good news all round.
It’s difficult to tell how much this intiative is in response to concerns, recently referred yet again to the Competition Commission, about large retailers who are ‘stoking up’ on land, and how much it’s just part of the retail learning curve that all sensible commercial businesses need to be on. My guess is it’s a combination of the two, but who knows?
And indeed, who cares? It’s what happens which matters in the business world and to the average customer, not why it may have happened.
Green and forward looking?
We can only welcome the promise to use totally bio-degradeable bags, to have clearer product labelling, to deliver bulk merchandise more considerately on the high street and to promote healthy eating. Tesco knows very well that these promises will have to be kept – there are plenty of people watching out there who would be delighted to find them failing to deliver these undertakings. (To quote Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation, ‘The good neighbour tag could come back to haunt them, rather like the Tories with their Back to Basics campaign.’)
There are many debates to be had about Tesco, but the logic of the market still in the end applies. If enough people make a fuss, things will change. If they don’t, change may occur, but not at the same rate. The really clever businesses, of course, change in anticipation of what the fuss will later be about, not as an overt response to it. Maybe that’s the oft-commented genius of Tesco boss Terry Leahy?
Strength in numbers?
But for many local consumers the ‘real’ issue isn’t so much the logic of the market as the perceived ‘threat’ to local communities and smaller businesses. This concern is probably reasonable in many respects. Tesco and the other huge supermarkets have enormous resources and strengths and the little shop on the corner doesn’t. It might however be useful to remember that strength, for all parties, may lie in working together.
This could happen in two ways.
Firstly, have the small local businesses approached their bigger neighbours (or vice-versa?) to see what possibilities there are for, say, joint customer-faced training, local supplier support, promotion of healthy life-styles, community investment or anything else? Is there any real dialogue going on to test the depth and sincerity of the claim of the big stores that they want to work with their tiny neighbours? If there is, it’s not hit the headlines…
And secondly, what are local business leaders and advisors doing to help small enterprises to get together and act as one to ‘protect’ their interests against the giants? Wouldn’t this be a more constructive use of, say, council officials’ time – paid for by all of us – than carrying on endless local enquiries?
Convoluted logic
There’s a strange logic in the situation which often seems to come up, where on the one hand local activists persuade their council to oppose intended (and in many respects often much-needed) investment by the large interests, whilst at the same time most people in the community choose to shop in larger stores. Perhaps there’s a message here somewhere?
Less fuss about Tesco and their ilk hoping (until the current initiative) to open as long as they want to on Sundays (they can already do this in Scotland…), and more attention to the ways that local businesses can collaborate to serve their particular communities, might be quite a good idea. To quote Sharon Fraser, head of audit at Deloitte in the north, ‘Financial support could help the small stores improve their property portfolio.’ And what applies to property portfolios applies equally perhaps to other aspects of local business.
In the meantime, the ‘competition’ between the Big Boys to show their green and cuddly credentials can be no bad thing either.

Posted on May 11, 2006, in Sustainability As If People Mattered. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It will be interesting to see if Tesco’s new-found commitment to community and environmental issues will extend to how it treats customers and suppliers.
    Location of stores and the effect these stores have had on local communities has been well-documented and debated.
    What tends to slip under the radar however, is a business-model that places the car at the heart of the shopping ‘experience’. Huge swathes of bitmac for free car parks and an encouragement to over-consume place people in the position of needing a car a lot of the time. This is especially pertinent when we consider that a large section of Liverpool people do not have access to a personal vehicle.
    Additionally, whilst food may be sourced locally under this new plan, will there still be huge food miles involved? There are many stories that local produce travels over 200 miles or so to arrive at a Tesco store a few miles down the road from the supplier! tesco are not alone in this I must add.
    Also, will more local suppliers be tied into crippling contracts? Will they be forced to produce to a particular standard/look thereby defeating the object of having variety and individuality?
    This is a good move on the whole for Tesco but I will wait and judge them on their actions as opposed to their words. For the record, I do shop at Tesco. However, my girlfiend and I try to support local businesses and suppliers. Like many, however, there comes the occasion when you are left with little choice. That’s not a bad thing as such, as Tesco and others have their place serving certain needs. However, one always feels that it is because of the actions of supermarkets that the choice, variety and local produce we desire is simply not there.
    Personally, I woudl like to see Section 106 monies or similar to be used by local authorities in a more imaginative way. For instance, it could be put into training people to set up their own businesses to try and protect variety and choice or to improve the pedestrian environment and access for local people to access more than just the supermarket.

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