Tesco was long ago cast as the pantomime villain of British retailers. Back in 2007 when it announced record profits of £2.5 billion, the company was estimated to pocket £1 out of every £7 spent by UK shoppers. Unsurprisingly, there were many people who didn't think this was a particularly good thing and wondered whether such a level of market domination was either desirable or sustainable. Protests against store openings became commonplace and well-organised campaign groups have fought against new branches opening, everywhere from Goring in Berkshire to the West End of Glasgow.
While there have been plenty of e-petitions against "Tescofication", particularly in rich neighbourhoods looking to maintain their "village character", the people of the Fife coastal town of Kirkcaldy are much more upset now that their store is going to close. In fact, they're campaigning to keep the branch open.
Despite remaining the largest retailer in the country, Tesco has recently shed its cloak of apparent invincibility. A series of calamitous corporate fuck-ups culminated in September last year when it admitted to overstating its first-half profits by a mere £263 million. It was revealed the retailer had pulled forward bonuses due from suppliers for achieving promotional targets while, at the same time, insisting on delaying payment for the goods that fill its shelves. More bad news came in January when Tesco announced it was closing 43 unprofitable stores across the country, scrapping plans to open 49 more and cutting company overheads by 30 percent.
Locals in Kirkcaldy, north of Edinburgh over the Firth of Forth, are actively fighting against the closure of their supermarket. The town centre superstore is one of the 43 due to close by April. As a result, 189 staff members face an uncertain future, and the area is set to lose one its few remaining anchor stores. The campaign to save the shop is being driven by Fife Council and has attracted a high profile backer in former Prime Minister and local constituency MP Gordon Brown, who will meet Tesco CEO Dave Lewis this week to ask him to reverse the decision.
"What really concerns me is that if we create a hole in the high street by losing the biggest superstore in the town, then all the other shops in the area will suffer. We must keep Tesco at the heart of Kirkcaldy," Brown said.
When I heard there was to be a Valentine's Day protest against the closure I decided to go along to try to understand why there is such a strong belief locally that a company like Tesco is worth fighting for. Maybe it's because of the years of anti-Tesco campaigns, but there is a common assumption that supermarkets profit at the expense of smaller, independent businesses. Wouldn't the removal of Tesco actually reinvigorate the high street, rather than condemn it?
Councillor David Ross, leader of Fife Council, didn't think so. "Tesco is one of the largest and most important stores in Kirkcaldy," he said. "It acts as an anchor for the whole of the town centre. Smaller retailers depend on major stores such as this to attract visitors into the town.
"If the shopping centre were to fall vacant, a major redevelopment of the site would be necessary. In the current climate, it would be very difficult to source funds for such a redevelopment."
The protest was held in front of Kirkcaldy's handsome Town House, which lies less than 150 yards from the Tesco in question, and there was a respectable turnout considering the typically dreich February weather. The majority of the 100 or so people standing politely listening to speeches from local politicians had grey hair – reflecting the older, non-car owning demographic that relies on the store.
"Many elderly people take a taxi or a bus straight to the shop, use the Post Office inside, and take a taxi home. It's like a round-trip and a day out for them," explained Brian McGurn of Kirkcaldy Taxi Association. "All their amenities are in one area, where as if they're scattered to the four winds it would cost them a fortune in taxis or require two buses to get to the other supermarkets which are all on the edge of town."
The local authority enthusiastically promoted the building of an out-of-town retail park in the 1990s – the sort of car-friendly development that pulls shoppers away from the high street. Ross, rightly, points out that Kirkcaldy was not alone in doing this. "The council is updating its retail planning policies and is introducing a strong new 'town centre first' policy to help reinforce the high street," he added. The closure of one of the town centre's biggest draws is threatening that.
"I've seen people crying over this," said Anne, a regular customer at the store since it opened more than 40 years ago. "If you've been in the community so long, then surely you owe it something back?"
The speaker who received by far the biggest response was Councillor Tom Adams, a former pit worker who is one of the 189 Tesco staff who could lose their jobs. He previously worked at the Frances Colliery in nearby Dysart and was a picket coordinator during the 1984 to 1985 miners' strike.
"People in that store have never been through anything like this before, but I have and I know what it's all about," he said. "I've had people say to me, 'Why bother? They'll just shut it anyway.' I tell them it's your store they're trying to close, and your high street that will fall like a row of dominoes if it shuts."
Despite the turnout, it looks likely the campaign will be in vain. When I asked Tesco if it would consider reversing its decision, a spokesman offered little encouragement. "In January we announced that our performance as a business has fallen significantly short of where we would want it to be and that to protect the future of the business in the UK we would close 43 unprofitable stores, including our Kirkcaldy store," he said. "The decision to close the store has been exceptionally difficult to take and we recognise it will affect many hard working colleagues, our customers and the local community." Even the prospect of the council offering incentives would not be enough for the company to reconsider. "We are very grateful to those who have worked extremely hard to produce a package of proposals that could lower costs for our store," the spokesman continued. "We have analysed them carefully. With deep regret, even with the proposed reductions in our costs the store would continue to make a significant loss. It is with great sadness that we have to move forward with our plans to close the store."
I visited the superstore after the rally had finished. The shopping centre it dominates is clad in dull brown panelling, and one entrance awkwardly opens out on to a narrow street, but there are worse examples in the grim world of supermarket architecture. The checkout staff were busy serving men buying £10 bunches of roses. Where they will spend next year's Valentine's Day is anyone's guess. Still, it seems like people have more love for Tesco than you'd think.
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