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Business Comment

Tesco shareholders demanding Clarke's head don't realise times have changed


Outlook The City's wolves are baying for the blood of Philip Clarke in the wake of Tesco's full-year results. Small wonder: they're awful.

You can see now why details of the plan to re-enter the US with clothes stores, just seven months after its exit from the debacle that was the Californian supermarket chain Fresh & Easy, emerged a couple of days ago. It offered the chance to create a little bit of good news before the fall of the hammer. Hey, look – we're doing things!

Good news is in desperately short supply for this business. For more than a decade Tesco was as reliable as a Volkswagen car. After the second straight year of falling profits and an accelerating decline in like-for-like sales, it now looks more like a clapped-out Lada.

The buck for that stops with Mr Clarke. Rightly so, you might think, given what he gets paid.

But would changing the biggest deckchair atop the Tesco Titanic do much to pep up its fortunes? That's open to debate.

There is an uncomfortable fact facing Tesco and the Clarke-out brigade among its investors and it won't change whoever occupies the chief executive's office.

They must simply get used to making do with less.

The British shopper has had to get used to this during the past six years and they're increasingly unwilling to use their limited supplies of hard-earned cash to keep Tesco's shareholders in the style to which they have become accustomed. Why should they? Especially now there are so many discounters out there bearing gifts.

It isn't just Aldi and Lidl, either. Poundland and pals also stock lots of cheap groceries these days.

That Mr Clarke was slow to realise this could be seen in the super-duper margins he was targeting but has now dropped. Targets that were cheered in the City.

To be fair to the Tesco boss, he has also called time on the self-defeating supermarket space race by pledging fewer new store openings, while trialling some interesting ideas out in the group's unloved hypermarkets – such as installing soft play venues that children love and renting out space to other retailers. These may help to stabilise some of the decline, but it's very much a case of papering over the cracks.

If Mr Clarke were really bold he'd plant his flag in front of the massed ranks of his shoppers and say "yah boo sucks" to his shareholders. He'd tell them the customer is king and they will have to live with the consequences of that. Which might include their accepting a cut-price dividend. Tesco pays half of its profits out at the moment and that may not be sustainable if it wants to win its lost customers back.

Shareholders would benefit from Mr Clarke taking such a step in the long term. Some of the sharper ones realise this. They will have worked out by now that their company isn't ever going to get back to the salad days it enjoyed under Sir Terry Leahy when one pound in every seven spent by shoppers went through Tesco tills. The market has changed dramatically.

Unfortunately, a bloodied and bruised Mr Clarke may now lack the courage to go further than he's already gone – even if the majority of his investors were bright enough to let him do so. Given the siren calls for his head, it doesn't look as if they are.