Peter York on Ads: Tesco

It's so good, I might even shop there myself
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The Independent Online

Tesco is an issue, no question. You could have a Tesco story on every page of this paper. Tesco contributes to the continued entertainment and employment of journalists in so many ways. For instance, because Tesco is so utterly universal, does it, single-handed, make high streets and retailing even more cloney?

Feature journalists were rather late on to the clone retailing story precisely because they tended to avoid mainstream shopping for something more evolved, or funky. Journalists were early into farmers' markets and the Borough Market and anything else touched with the curse of authenticity. So it took most of them until last year to notice that the core of all British high streets, shopping centres and retail parks are occupied by shops owned by no more than about 10 retail groups, some of them very dull operators indeed. That's why Norwich looks like Yeovil. That's why the notionally Golden Mile of Princes Street in Edinburgh is lined with the same shops as Romford (plus those grim tartan gift shops).

The cycle of predictability takes in developers, shopping centre operators, local authorities and the global retail letting agencies. It's the post-war heart of Little Britain.

But don't blame it on Tesco. You might reasonably want lots of variation in clothes shops and shoe shops and furniture groups and a hundred other specialists. But in supermarkets? Supermarkets cover a fairly broad church - huge groups of otherwise dissimilar people - in the business of getting the nation fed and watered and the other basics. But people keep on saying Tesco is too uncontrollably big, takes too large a share of the national spend. And it's got that Clubcard, which is seen as sinister in some circles - I once heard a leftwing academic describe the Clubcard as "a mechanism of social control" because it let Tesco know a lot about its customers' behaviour. (What it actually does is drive insights like nappies and beer for young dads who shop.)

They say Tesco drives other specialist shops out of business as it ploughs on, taking in pharmacy and flowers, clothes and books. What it actually does is batter down the old loyalties to smaller, less efficient chain specialists. But it leaves a market for real specialists. Tesco polarises things and the retail killing fields are in the mediocre middle.

That's not the half of it; there are planning stories and environmental ones and the extraordinary history of a British retailer moving into Eastern Europe without losing its shirt. And even announcing a push into the United States without having its stock price plummet (the City normally hates to see British retailers setting up in America because they've got 20 years of terrible precedents.)

Tesco is very well run, keeps in constant touch with its market and keeps on moving, doing unglamorous things effectively. Which is why it's one of the few British retailers in the global Big League. Of course, I'm a Waitrose kinda guy, but Tesco is my backstop and I'm often there, feeling demotic. Unconsidered Tesco-bashing makes me positively Thatcherite.

It leads Tesco itself, very cleverly, into advertising that makes it look like 30 years of BBC1. In the years when they were sailing past Sainsbury to the number one spot and courting the middle-class vote, they had Prunella Scales, a familiar PLU kind of actress playing a lower-middley type, like she did in Fawlty Towers. It was delicious double take, mining the same sort of English sentiments as Hyacinth Bucket.

In its new commercial it's got a lorry-load of mostly rather mature television faces. The most reassuring part-of-the-landscape, even borderline National Treasure types, supporting an Environment Lite campaign. It's all about using fewer plastic bags, bringing your own, and - devilish cunning this - getting Clubcard points for it. So Ronnie Corbett puts his shopping in a giant golf caddy, Alan Whicker - the nattiest OAP ever - jams it into a 1970s Samsonite suitcase, Alan Titchmarsh takes a wheelbarrow on the bus and the gorgeous pouting Martine McCutcheon puts her stuff in a brace of chavtastic pink Bond St designer bags. They end up with Paul Daniels pulling a huge fish out of a top hat. The whole thing weaves a roll call of proxies for familiar values - miles cleverer than going for the more direct symbolism of the village and Vaughan Williams style - with a mainstream cause. They haven't even got the decency to get the advertising wrong.