Once, Tesco were the arch bad guys of the high street. Whether you were an eco-campaigner sat in your Bristol squat or a town planner having your high street slurried off into a giant car park somewhere near the bypass, you hated Tesco and so did everyone else. But that fever pitch of anger could only sustain for so long. After a while, Britain simply found other bad guys. Terrorists. Derivatives traders. Cat Bin Lady. By the mid-noughties, hating Tesco already seemed passé.
Right now, though, Tesco are running into proper difficulties, and have come careening back into sight. Two CEOs and a chairman down in 18 months, a £263 million accounting black hole, its market value now halved since the start of the year, a Serious Fraud Office probe on the way, the buttermilk cock thing, and also: this woman, who apparently found a "white jelly-like object" in her bottle of vinegar, which is quite bad. Suddenly, everyone fucking hates Tesco again.
For a while, they hid in plain sight, and we lost them in the snow-blindness of yet another new blue and white shopfront dotted along the commute home. It's time to remind ourselves of some of Tesco's biggest crimes.
THE BUILDINGS ARE A BLIGHT ON THE NATION
A race of giant white steel spawning pods from outer space that hunker by motorways, the largest Tescos are built to the exact same floor plan, spammed out like Sim City units. In 2014, Tesco won, not for the first time, Building Design Magazine's Carbuncle Cup award, their Woolwich Central superstore named the worst new building of the year. It was, the judges noted: "oppressive, defensive, arrogant and inept".
Of course, no organisation is immune from architectural vandalism. But no one else has committed themselves to it with the same weird zeal of Tesco. It is one of the few companies with its own vernacular; a vaguely haunting visual style I'll refer to as "British Underwhelm". Like a monster in some kids' book, Tesco's buildings seems jealous of the beauty of everything else around them. Perhaps even their global head office is a cold concrete hatepoem against humanity? Well, here's a picture of it:
ITS DEPRESSING CO-OPTING OF THE NATIONAL COLOURS
British Airways can just about get away with this as they used to be owned by the taxpayer but Tesco always seem to be suggesting that they're some kind of British Rail of groceries, a kind of Ministry For The Big Shop. They are, they imply, completely enmeshed with our national identity. And in some ways, they're right. After all, nothing's more British than a clone town high street stuffed with alienated staff who'll be out on their ear the moment someone invents a machine to stack shelves. But it's not really a heritage brand, is it? Any more than Centrica is, or Ladbrokes. Benson & Hedges probably have a larger place in British hearts, and they sell cancer and impotence.
TESCO'S IN-HOUSE COFFEE CHAIN IS, WELL, JUST VERY TESCO
The modern vogue for buying a coffee that costs £2.65 has not escaped the Tesco team. They have invested heavily in Harris & Hoole, a pukingly Chapmagazine chain set up by the people who brought Taylor St Baristas to the UK. If you thought corporate coffee shops were already the Japanese Knotweed of anonymity on the high street, get ready for the turbo-thrust Tesco version.
THE TESCO FINEST RANGE
Go on, prole-boy. It's a Friday night. Why not treat yourself to the couscous salad that doesn'ttaste like pickled rat-balls? Tesco were the ones who first played this clever little trick of reverse psychology on us all. The mousse that was made with actual eggs and chocolate? That wasn't standard. That was premium. You have to pay more for that. And so the national dysfunctional relationship with food was allowed to continue. Yes, we all said: real food is not for the likes of me. The norm for eating is a grey sludge tasting of pit pony. Maybe when that next payrise comes in I'll deserve the paella with more than two desultory prawns and some far-off flecks of bacon in it.
Maybe when that next payrise comes in I'll deserve the Tesco Finest paella with more than two desultory prawns and some far-off flecks of bacon in it
FARMERS DESPISE TESCO AND, BY EXTENSION, YOU FOR SHOPPING THERE
I once worked as an agricultural journalist. Every week, I'd get the train to Norfolk or Lincolnshire, take a pricey cab up four miles of gravel tracks and talk to people at the field-end of the "field to fork"-cycle. Lots of salty blokes with missing limbs leaning against tractors and carping on about the perils of the potato cyst nematode. I don't think I ever met anyone who was under 40 and everyone treated me like I was a wastrel fop somewhere between Pete Doherty and Rupert Everett. It was great.
Sainsbury's, they resented; ASDA had definite issues, but a special circle of hell was always reserved for Tesco and their steadfast belief in the foot-on-throat method of negotiation. The margins in British farming are next to nil. That's one reason no one was under 40. None of these guys could ever convince their kids to take over the family farm. Yet Tesco always came back and asked for more, up to and including side-payments to cover spoilage that had happened inside the company's stores. That's right: If your vegetables go off in their store, then you, as a farmer, are clearly to blame and must pay.
THE ILLUSION OF VALUE
Here's a puzzle involving meat: I buy two packets of chicken that are £3.50 when bought individually. Bought collectively, they are £5, i.e. £2.50 each. However, I don't immediately need two. Given that the likelihood that I will actually be able to use both before they expire four days from now is 70 percent, what is the true cost of each packet individually when bought collectively?
That's right, it's: 100/70*2.50 = £3.57. Well done, you've saved -7p per pack.
THE CHEERY SELF-MYTHOLOGISING
Tesco has always tried to sell itself on the idea that it is charmingly old school in the way it does business. After all, they pointed out, their CEO had worked his way right off the shop floor. Cuddly Terry Leahy, with his backstory about how he'd started stacking shelves there when he was 17, seemed to represent some kind of continuity with the barrow-boy origin myth of the company – that of ol' Jack Cohen starting his business as a cart full of fish paste in 1919.
Like Cohen, the myth was that Terry had come up the hard way. He was a likeable, softly-spoken family man… who acted in every way like an eyeless jelly of pure corporate raider, consuming resources and shitting out record profits as he swept and ground his property empire to victory in the 90s supermarket wars, a horseman of his own high street apocalypse, spreading bland pestilence and a never-ending price war.
THE GHOST PROPERTY EMPIRE
Tesco won the supermarket wars because they expanded faster than their rivals in an age where the out-of-town superstore was the building block of revenues. Every new flag Leahy planted in Chipping Sodbury or Halifax, was one that ASDA or Sainsbury's or Safeways couldn't. In doing that, he amassed a land bank of 20 million square metres of property – enough to site 310 new Tescos. This actively thwarted the company's rivals, who found the best sites already taken. And now it thwarts anyone else who might like to build houses, schools, or anything else in all these plum empty spaces.
Now that the profits are drying up, Tesco find themselves ridiculously over-extended. But over-extension was always their strategy. Victory itself came at the price of saturating areas with their stores to choke out the competition.
YOUR CLUB CARD WOULD LIKE TO LOOK UP YOUR BUMHOLE NOW
Nowadays, the Tesco Club Card is a case study in every marketing textbook. It was the first, and is still the best. These people invented the modern technologies of the computer-aided loyalty card and created a whole new style of deep data-mining to wring value from that.
"What sort of toilet paper does Mr Tamlin Brown of Shiplake Crescent, Notts like to wipe his arse with?" their data scientists can ask, and from that, they can tell you more than you might wanna know about the likelihood of you buying some jam in the next week. The most famous example of this is how their data company, Dunnhumby, can predict attempts at pregnancy on the basis of what you start buying, and from there can predict to within a fortnight when your baby is due.
Forget the NSA. These are the guys who have their proboscis stuck right in the back of your skull.
Tesco: nowhere else in public life makes you feel more like you are a misplaced item in life's bagging area
THE STORE DESIGN
When Mick Jones wrote "Lost In The Supermarket" he could not have predicted the level of consumerist alienation we'd have arrived at by 2014. If he wrote it about Tesco in the modern age, it would actually be nine minutes of grinding ambient drone, set, Hype Williams-style, over the distant, distorted reverb-soaked clanging of a pitched down Cheryl Cole song and the paranoid placeless whine of Sky News. Ergonomically, this is the one place that makes an airport Costa Coffee feel like Mum's house. It does not dress up what it is: an airless Jiffy bag for economic units. For drab little filler in the economic sandwich. Filler like you, little worker bee. Nowhere else in public life makes you feel more like you are merely there to serve the share price of a PLC, the overall sense that you yourself are a misplaced item in life's bagging area.
Capitalism's all fine and dandy. But it's based on the idea of something for something. More and more, because of their market power, Tesco has treated us merely as economic units in their value-extraction problem, little flashing blue dots on a map, pumping crucial further-expansion funds into its coffers. That's why its troubles are to be cheered. It's gone so far wrong it's even managing to give the market economy a bad name.
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