Saturday, 3 August 2013

Down The Rabbit Hole... or How I Learned To Love Irony

I'm not sure if it's the continuing high level of humidity, the increased levels of Vitamin D in my system from recent sunny days, the lack of sleep due to stifling nights, the side-effects of the anti-histamines I'm taking to ward off hay-fever or maybe it's just a combination of all of them, but I was struck by two announcements this week, one from HMG and one from Tesco. They have left me feeling somewhat divorced from reality and I am feeling as confused as Alice after her vertiginous descent as she dealt with the murderous Red Queen and the manic Mad Hatter and his tea party.

The former, in the guise of Home Office Minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach who released figures in the House of Lords that reveal that almost all the major supermarkets are selling large volumes of alcohol below cost; the latter masquerading as Tesco's UK Managing Director announcing plans for the "evolution" of its larger stores and hints this could be rolled out to its smaller "convenience" stores.

But any way back to the Red Queens' government's comments on findings in the latest available figures (for 2008) that 6 out of 7 supermarkets sold alcohol below cost, with a total of over 220 million litres of alcohol sold below cost price, ALMR Strategic Affairs Director, Kate Nicholls said:

“The Government’s admission of the scale of below cost selling and supermarket irresponsibility when it comes to pricing clearly demonstrates the need for swift, tough and effective action not only to tackle pocket money prices but to impose the same regulation of promotional activity in the off-trade as pubs, clubs and bars currently face.”

The problem was further emphasised with the release of the Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People Survey (published 25th July), which shows that a quarter of underage drinkers bought alcohol from a shop, supermarket or off-licence and almost 40% got it from friends or relatives at home, with the majority of these purchases also likely to be from shops and supermarkets. This compares to 1% of young people who had obtained their alcohol from pubs. Responding to these findings, Nicholls said:

“With more than 70% of alcohol now consumed away from the safe, supervised environment of a pub or bar – and the latest research showing two thirds of consumers citing price as the main factor behind that – the time for government action is now. We cannot go on allowing a tide of cheap alcohol to undermine the good work responsible pub and bar operators are doing to deliver the Government’s public health and public order agenda.”

So the Red Queen government recognises the culpability of the off-trade's irresponsible alcohol retailing policies in society's relationship with alcohol and it admits pubs are, by far, more responsible in terms of under-age drinking at the very least. Both sets of figures (below cost retailing and where 11-15 year olds obtain alcohol) have been available since they came to office yet still no action is taken against retail giants such as the Mad Hatter Tesco. Fair enough, I hear you say, but these things take time, there were other priorities, we can't be anti-business...

You'll understand why I find a certain amount of bewilderment in the Red Queen government ministers decrying pubs on the one hand whilst on the other hand recognising, as does Lord Taylor, that perhaps we should be looking more closely at the off-trade. However, this is just the normal schizophrenic attitude this administration has to its 'alcohol strategy' and is not the true source of my Carrollian confusion, for this lies in the Mad Hatter's Tesco's business plans.

The Mad Hatter Tesco's MD has spoken this week of "retail destinations that are exciting, relevant and convenient”, Chris Bush told 'The Grocer' magazine the company wants to create destinations that would mean shoppers can visit a yoga class, pop into the dry cleaner’s, get their hair or nails done, or enjoy a meal, all in the same retail space. Bush said food courts were an “important part” of the company’s plans, with fresh food, coffee shops, and fast food options part of the offer. (I'll bet they are!)

Don't forget, of course, in two days the Mad Hatter Tesco opens a 'Giraffe Restaurant' at its Watford Extra store, with plans to open ten in total this year - and a new carvery-style concept the same day in Coventry. Bush hints at the rationale behind the retail giant's recent acquisition of the 'Giraffe' brand and his company's road map:

“In the past, large hypermarkets were popular because they offered a massive range of products and people liked being able to buy everything under one roof – it made life easier. The internet has changed all that - people don’t even need to leave their homes to go shopping and more people are using convenience stores for regular top-up shops. Our customers pay to put fuel into their car and drive away from their homes to visit us, so we need to give them good reasons to come to our larger stores.”

Mind you he's only echoing earlier comments this year from the White Rabbit his commercial director, Kevin Grace:

“We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about retail destinations and how our stores might become somewhere that people spend more time, as well as shop. With more general merchandise moving online, we have a great opportunity to rethink how we use the space in some of our larger stores. To put some of that thinking into context, it might be useful to think about the many different shopping malls around the world. In most cases, their food concepts are excellent and it’s one of the main reasons people go there."

On the same day as the Mad Hatter Tesco opens its first Giraffe Restaurant it will launch a new casual dining concept called "Decks" at its Arena Shopping Park site in Coventry and is planning to use spare space at its sites to install community rooms. "Decks", part of The Mad Hatter Tesco Family Dining Division, will feature carvery style decks – with hosts manning different serving stations. 'Decks' will offer “classic British favourites, from breakfasts and roasts to crumbly cakes served with a proper cuppa”. A job advert states: 

“Our food is on display and so is our kitchen team. Serving as a “Deck Host” means chatting, recommending to guests and carving fresh roasts. Behind the scenes is different as our “support chefs” are working at pace backing the deck, and that means clean plates and fresh food.”

And the architect of these abominations? Former Mitchells & Butlers chief executive Adam Fowle who has been advising the supermarket chain on its strategy to develop the Mad Hatter's Tesco’s portfolio of food and drink brands (which already included includes Harris+Hoole coffee shops and the Euphorium Bakery concept).

Meanwhile, the first "community room", which will be available for yoga classes, music lessons and birthday parties. The 600 square foot room in Coventry will be available free of charge and include tea and coffee-making facilities. The community room is similar to initiatives the Mad Hatter Tesco already runs in some of its stores in Thailand (run previously, yep you got it, by their newly appointed UK Managing Director).

I have a question to pose to those who will inevitably have to administer  the Mad Hatter's Tea Party Tesco premises licence under the 2003 licensing act: "How will you reconcile responsible retailing practice within the on-trade element of Tesco's premises with their irresponsible approach to selling alcohol in its off-trade sector, especially if they're contained within the same premises?"

Will you a) relax your approach to Tesco's retailing in its on-trade department or b) impose the same strict standards to its off-trade counter?  Or as Jeremy Browne might have it,  will Tesco's on-trade adventure fall within the category of "community premises", which will have less onerous licensing provisions of "low alcohol sales"?

A "virtuous" circle has now been formed... the pubcos labouring under mountainous debts divest themselves of "unsustainable pubs" run by "bad landlords"... these pubs are snapped up by mega-grocers... the government and local licensing authorities continue to turn a blind-eye to irresponsible alcohol retailing by the grocers... more people shop online with the grocers... drink more at home... and when they do eventually get their respective bums of their sofas and go out for a drink or meal they go to one of the grocers' hybrid on/off trade premises... fewer people use their local community pubs... more pubs are declared "unsustainable" by the pubcos... and there you have it, what my business dictionary describes as:
"A self-propagating advantageous situation in which a successful solution leads to more of a desired result or another success which generates still more desired results or successes in a chain"

And who said irony was dead?

1 comment:

J Mark Dodds said...
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