Why Tesco should stop being all things to all men (and women)

Dave Lewis has to understand quickly that retailing is about much more than logistics and production

Looking back to the Sir Terry Leahy era at Tesco, I can break it into two.

There was a period, early-on, when he spoke with infectious enthusiasm about the business he’d inherited, about giving customers exactly what they wanted, about him and his staff spending time on the shop-floor always listening and learning.

Other supermarkets struggled to keep pace with the scale of Tesco’s offering, as it tweaked products, adding a new flavouring here, putting it in a different-sized package there. Always, there was a close attention to value and efficiency.

Then the mood changed. The chat was of beating rivals, of driving suppliers incredibly hard. The touchy-feely aspect – and there was one, despite Leahy’s hard-man exterior – seemed to take second place.

Customers are not stupid, and they noticed the shift. They began to feel they did not count as much. They went to warmer places, to comfy Waitrose for quality and to cheeky Aldi and Lidl for price.

Somehow Dave Lewis, the new Tesco broom, has to recapture that early mood, and not allow the quest for performance to swamp the ability to innovate and to lead the industry.

It was disappointing that his first act on his first day in charge today was to have a meeting with Sir Richard Broadbent, the chairman. There will be plenty of time for those, if there have not been several already.

Coming from Unilever, Lewis has to understand quickly that retailing is about much more than logistics and production. To do it well requires an intuitive understanding for the customer.

When Justin King arrived at Sainsbury, the senior team were waiting to greet him at the company HQ. He didn’t turn up. Someone tracked him down and they asked if he’d forgotten that he was due to start. No, King replied, he’d been at work since 7am, visiting a store. Lewis could do a lot worse than learn from King.

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