James Moore: Tesco certainly has issues, but critics must be mad to say it's in a real crisis

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The Independent Online

Outlook The supermarket that ate Britain is still suffering from indigestion. Tesco's doubters had plenty to get their teeth into yesterday. Fresh & Easy? The US West Coast chain that was supposed to be the gateway into the world's biggest market still looks rotten and it's hard to be sure when it might break even.

Then there's the dividend. Up just 2.1 per cent, the reaction to that in the City was as sour as the cream lots of Tesco's customers are finding cheaper elsewhere.

It was never like this in Sir Terry Leahy's day. No one would have dreamed of even mentioning Tesco as the next Carrefour, the French grocer which is in the midst of a genuine crisis after a string of profit warnings.

Nor should they be now if they had any sense. Tesco has issues. While the supermarket giant was going global it got complacent at home and its cash cow, the UK stores, ran right out of milk as customers departed for greener pastures.

It seemed to have escaped Tesco's attention that rivals were getting better. Not just a rejuvenated Morrisons but Asda and especially Sainsbury's. While they were eating into the supermarket group's market share its executives were busy cannibalising their popular Clubcard scheme by cutting the benefits to supposedly fund a price drop campaign nobody liked. Not least because sometimes those prices only dropped after having been quietly raised a few weeks before.

Just when you thought you'd seen the last word in stupidity from executives who are paid too much to have the remotest idea of what it is to be one of their customers, they come up with a doozy like that.

The chief executive Philip Clarke has to prove he has the right formula to fix things. Some of his ideas have merit. Spending money on staff, his stores and making his remaining customers feel loved makes sense if the plan is executed well (a big if). The trouble is it does mean he's had to tell the City that, in the short term, returns will fall. The short term is all the City cares about.

A shame for Mr Clarke, that, because a hard look at the numbers suggests there is not quite as much to worry about as his critics claim. Some of those international businesses Tesco has lavished so much attention on are looking quite fresh. They are situated in parts of the world where making money is still relatively easy. Like Korea, and Malaysia.

Combined, they made £1bn, more money than M&S made, more money than Sainsbury's made and more money than Morrisons made. A cash cow to fix the core UK businesses, then?

Here's another number worth taking note of: despite its sometimes lacklustre service, Tesco has an astonishing 48 per cent of the online grocery market. Care to guess which is the fastest-growing channel in retail? And it is alive to the possibilities smartphones offer.

This grocer has some heavy lifting to do, and Mr Clarke's complexion might soon become ghostly pale rather than bright red. But Tesco is no more likely to follow Carrefour into the poorhouse than a banker is to voluntarily accept a pay cut.