Captain Vigilante

OUTRAGEOUS. But probably very effective. That’s the thinking about Sir Terry’s public relations campaign designed to distract the Competition Commission during its probe into the market.

It’s a highly professional campaign which could win a desired clean bill of health from the CC. The value which Tesco places on this activity is revealed by the promotion to the plc board of Lucy Neville-Rolfe, who has been company secretary in charge of group corporate and legal affairs at the giant multiple for nine years,

Mastermind of the giant multiple’s image campaign, Lucy leaves behind the routine of the company secretary’s job to deal solely with corporate affairs at plc level – a more exciting job spec.

CONNECTIONS. Lucy was once a senior civil servant at 10 Downing Street in the Cabinet office no less, so she has the right mobile numbers in her contact book.

Outrageous was the adjective used by a senior wholesaler in his reaction to the now famous article, “placed” in the media by Lucy under Sir Terry’s named authorship, which encouraged the reader to see his firm as a family business.

Referring to founder Jack Cohen’s market stall, the piece ended with this: “If he came back today I would like to think … he would recognise many of the values he built into his family firm.”

These family associations copy the sentiments of the My Shop Is Your Shop campaign (launched in 2004) supporting real sole traders and real family businesses.

COMMUNITY. Then we had the Tesco Community Plan (September 06) which could dovetail beautifully into MSYS (launched 04) with its focus on the local neighbourhood.

MSYS pioneers are flattered by the way in which Lucy’s department has developed the FWD inspiration into a BIG IDEA with vast sums of money behind it. This was very good news for communities and the environment but analysts are sceptical. The big chains, they say, can talk a good game but their true ethical colours are hard to determine.

Not so with MSYS where real life local independent c-stores, newsagents and rural retailers “living over the shop” are part of the community but need MSYS (as Tesco needs Lucy) to help them package their community offering.

TORRINGTON. Just as Lucy was being appointed to the plc board, Tesco lost a new site at Torrington when the public forced the council to throw out a plan for a new superstore.

A rival proposal for a smaller Somerfield was approved. This is the real public relations challenge that Tesco now faces and it could resonate inside the no-smoke filled rooms at the CC – why is the public adopting French-style reactionary and aggressive opposition to new Tesco superstores.

If the PR department at Cheshunt can persuade the CC that the public wants more Tesco stores funded by low cost prices extracted unfairly from pliant suppliers, then Lucy should be offered Sir Terry’s job.

GLOBAL. What the great and the good in the City are saying is this – Sir Terry should not be reined in or restricted in any way by new fair trading rules which might disadvantage his global retailing plans.

He is planning to expand in America, India and China to add to his presence in countries from South Korea and Thailand to Hungary. Global power, Tesco argues, will bring lower prices to consumers. The CC exists to deliver the lowest prices to consumers.

But Torrington’s rejection of Tesco demonstrates that the public is not as concerned as the CC about low prices. So now the CC should support the public, not the giants.

RESPONSE. There was another meeting of some of the great and the good of retailing, wholesaling and manufacturing at a fashionable West End restaurant when the subject of the CC cropped up.

What would this very busy body – currently drowning it seems in a sea of submissions, data, opinions, statistics, margins, terms and so on – finally come up with as a recipe for fair trading in the future? Or would the CC leave things as they are – unfair?

When the diners were asked for their forecast on the verdict to be announced by the CC in the summer, the response was discouraging.

Over pudding, only 10% of the guests, who were informed and articulate, believed that the outcome of the CC’s deliberations would make a difference to the status quo and help small retailers.

Shame on ye of little faith.

SIGNALS. Are we not being told what the Establishment is currently thinking about small businesses and the future shape of our economy?

Sleeping with one eye open, Vigilante says we have already been told how the new Gordon Brown administration sees things – just like Tony Blair. North of the Border there are people who say that Gordon the Scot will help small business because it’s in his blood.

But Kate Barker has blown the gaff. The chancellor asked her to review our planning laws and at a stroke she has recommended a virtual free-for-all which will give the giant multiples a field day.

Kate’s nightmare vision will virtually remove current local democratic consultation processes and put developers in charge.

FASHION. Add to this the Government’s decision to stamp out of existence thousands of rural post offices and a picture is emerging of a future where only size matters.

When the CC is nearing the end of its internal conversations, inter-departmental arguments, financial analysis and think-tanks, and is about to release its decisions on the future of the grocery market, will it fall foul of this obsession with size?

Bearing Barker and rural post offices in mind, the omens are not good.

ASDA. Mind you, it’s not only Sir Terry and Lucy who are today’s hyperactive persuaders. Asda is also now involved in toeing the line which MSYS brought to the wholesale/independent sector in 2004.

Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott, in distant Bentonville, Arkansas, is quick to tell those who will listen that Liverpool is a far better place today thanks to Asda. The Breck Road store has revitalised the neighbourhood, he claims. Knowing this part of the world, Vigilante supports his view. But then comes the line from the MSYS manual: “We have also redecorated the local community hall.”

Blimey! What generosity.

on cue. Just as CC chairman Peter Freeman was about to begin his draft of his emerging thinking on market domination, the aforementioned Lucy emerged to fire another PR salvo of good Tesco news for the shopper.

Peter couldn’t miss it – pound;80m in price cuts on 600 “key” items. What will Lucy do next? Will Peter fall for it?

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