Packers the new store war weapon

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The supermarket giant Tesco yesterday announced that it had created 4,500 new jobs - to provide special teams of "customer assistants" to offer extra help in its 548 stores across the country.

The scheme was launched on one of the busiest days of the year for supermarkets, as Tesco's chairman, Sir Ian MacLaurin, led more than 1,000 office staff who had volunteered to spend a day helping customers.

The office workers were temporarily joining the new teams of customer assistants, identifiable by blue waistcoats, who have had been trained "to use their initiative to help out customers at every stage of their shopping trips".

A Tesco spokeswoman said: "The 4,500 are all new jobs. It follows a trial in nine stores. The scheme is costing pounds 20m this year, but prices will not go up to pay for it because it is part of our budget.

"The customer assistants will unload trolleys, pack bags, find forgotten items or replace damaged goods, take note of any questions or ideas, and act as a personal point-of-contact for customers."

Sir Ian said that he was helping shoppers at the company's store at Brent Cross, north-west London, and that his board colleagues were at other stores - but, unlike the customer assistants, they were there for one day only.

Meanwhile, rival supermarkets yesterday responded to Tesco's move by revealing their commitment to new jobs.

Asda said that it had created 5,000 new jobs and increased the speed of its check-out operation by 15 per cent in the past year.

"Service is not something to be advertised," said Gwyn Burr, Asda's marketing director. "It is not just a matter of training manuals, it is something customers experience in our stores and either you like it or you don't," she added.

Sainsbury said that its increase in the number of staff hours in-store was the equivalent of more than 5,000 extra staff. And Safeway responded to Tesco's jobs initiative by claiming that it was "already doing it".

"Service is something Safeway staff have been giving for years," Roger Ramsden, director of brand marketing, said.

Safeway, which has 370 stores throughout the United Kingdom, launched its customer reward card in November 1993 to encourage shoppers' loyalty.

t Shoppers could soon be able to pick up a Tessa at Tesco or an investment savings scheme at Safeway as the high-street chains compete to become to become Britain's first financial supermarket, according to a new report out yesterday.

The groups are poised to cash in on existing successful customer loyalty promotions by extending them into the financial products field. And they could benefit from the reluctance of consumers to buy insurance products from their bank or building society, according to the market researchers Mintel. Its survey found that fewer than one in three adults would buy an insurance product from their bank or building society and that the majority preferred to shop around.

The report says a number of large retail outlets have already moved into financial services over the last 10 years. It cites Marks & Spencer and Virgin as prime examples of retailers who have exploited the opportunities open to them and says that the next step may be tie-ups or takeovers of life assurance companies by retailers.