Tesco’s share price has fallen dramatically after yet another profit warning. A once thriving supermarket chain finds itself in real trouble. Tesco blames the discount supermarkets, but although that is an easy excuse and some of the other chains are also suffering, it is too simplistic an analysis and merely distracts attention from Tesco’s own blame for the profit drop. The reason some others are suffering too is that similar problems also apply to them, the big chains copy each other a great deal. They take similar approaches and suffer the same consequences.
The root of the problem
Overall basket price is a big factor in customers migrating to the new discounters, but failure of trust is an even bigger one. A customer who is worried by prices still knows they have to eat and accepts having to pay, but is particularly worried about being overcharged, so trust becomes more important. It isn’t just the absolute shopping budget they care about. Feeling confident that they are getting the best value for what they have is equally important. Having to be constantly on their guard to avoid store tricks while doing what is already a boring chore is a sure way of making them want to shop elsewhere, and that is exactly why Tesco is suffering now.
Death by accountant and marketer
Accountants are critical to a successful company. If they are good, the company can flourish. If they are bad, it can die. The worst employee a company can have is an accountant who thinks they are cleverer than their customers. If they work with an equivalent self-regarding boss from marketing, they can destroy a company. Tesco sells a lot of products and its accountants and marketers have developed a large number of tricks to get customers to pay more than they should. It is easy to trick customers occasionally, and easy to think up new ways of doing so, but it isn’t clever. Eventually the customer notices. The practice of trying to trick customers to spend over the odds destroys trust and customer loyalty. When another supplier arrives that doesn’t abuse the customer in the same way, people vote with their feet, as we are now seeing.
I discussed death by marketing in a blog 9 months ago: http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/fake-sales-death-by-marketing/. If Tesco had read it and acted on it, perhaps the share price wouldn’t just have dropped.
I don’t need to list all the tricks here, you know them all too well, so just a few headline ones – reducing sizes while keeping the price the same, fake 50% off offers by charging double for a period, selling larger boxes at higher price per unit weight and so on. These are all technically legal, but any idiot can do that, and only an idiot would. A trivial short term gain may be had from a customer not concentrating enough, but the customer soon loses trust in the company. While it is inconvenient or more expensive overall to shop elsewhere they might still keep coming, but all the unnecessary effort they have to expend every time they go to avoid being fleeced all adds up. In the end, they walk. Nobody wants to be the poor sucker who paid £10 for a £5 bottle of win just so that others can be conned by a half price offer.
Trust has most definitely been squandered by repeated bad experiences of being fleeced. Frequently bad signage and misleading labelling don’t help. Some of that seems to be quite deliberate confusion marketing too, another fundamentally bad idea that only looks clever to the dumbest or marketers or store managers. Add to that rubbish customer service that seeks to defend the store against refunds and just argues that the customer is in the wrong and it’s a sure recipe for failure. The adverts may try to portray Tesco as the shopper’s best friend, desperate to give them the best possible value and service, but the reality experienced by the shopper is often the opposite. Many customers think of Tesco as the enemy rather than a friend. The share price drop is the direct result.
Solving this isn’t rocket science and it is astonishing just how reluctant previous managers have been to abandon so obviously flawed practice. The new boss needs to avoid these obvious mistakes. Treating customers as fools to be fleeced at every opportunity will not restore profits or the share price but will instead ensure continued collapse of loyalty.
The first foundation stone for a recovery is to stop trying to fool customers. The above points firmly to that. If you want that as ancient wisdom: “Once bitten, twice shy”. All the fake half-price and special offers have to go, and all the confusion marketing and confusion pricing. I know that accountants and marketers want to show off to their peers how smart they are, but really, fooling customers is NOT smart. The smartest way to show off to customers is by getting them really good deals occasionally, genuine special purchases.
Secondly, there can be no profit without customers. The customer is not the enemy and certainly not prey. The second foundation stone is to start treating the customer as a friend, as a potentially loyal source of future profit who just wants good value and good service. If the ethos is right, that customers should be looked after, then Tesco will recover. That the marketing says so but the reality is the opposite is a key clue to finding out where the problems really are. All the areas where customers are seen as the enemy need to be eradicated from corporate thinking. The new CEO should look down that avenue and kick the butts that need kicked.
Customer services should also go back to the old wisdom that the customer is always right. That was understood by retailers for centuries. Why has Tesco forgotten it? It needs to learn it afresh.
Thirdly, customers want consistently fair markups. They don’t want to get bread cheap and pay double for fruit and veg to make up the profits. They’d rather have purchase price + x%. Profit isn’t a dirty word and customers don’t expect shops to be charities. Markup is both expected and accepted. They just want a fair deal.
These foundations can create a solid platform for recovery. More bricks are needed on top of course, but that will come down to company flair. Tesco is huge and has enough market clout to get excellent special buys on occasion. It can offer some things the discounters can’t. It can add value in a myriad ways without adding to cost. Survival ultimately isn’t about price wars, but about looking after your customers.
My 6S guide to retailing is my view for high street retailing from 18 months ago, and is only partly appropriate to superstores, but a company the size of Tesco should know better that me anyway:
Tesco was once a great company. You could be sure of getting good quality at a good price and you didn’t have to be on your guard the whole time. On that strategy, it grew from a tiny company into a huge one. All it needs to do to recover is to remember its old values and apply them again. Those are the very same techniques the new discounters are using. They treat customers as friends, they try to get them the best deals, they offer good service, and they don’t try to fleece them. Tesco can even charge a little more than the discounters and survive, because price isn’t the only factor in play – the environment, types of display, range and quality of produce all count too. But it needs to go back to its original ethos. Genuinely.
If Tesco wants to survive, it can’t carry on treating customers as dumb prey. The trust has run dry.