Saturday, 29 April 2017

The triumph of Tescoland

Madingley to Deal, 130 miles.

I am sitting in the cab in the car park of Tesco Extra on the outskirts of Dover. This is the third Tesco car park we have visited this morning, the previous two, at Ashford and Folkestone were full, or at least busy enough to make it irritatingly difficult to find a pull through space big enough accommodate a 7m. moho. No, it's not national bogof day, but something similar - Saturday lunchtime of the May Day bank holiday, a moment when tous le monde goes shopping. Our situation is the result of a minor miscalculation on our part. We could have booked a crossing for Thursday, but decided not to head off straightaway after my last doctor's appointment This reflects a recent heartfelt resolution to stop rushing about so much and avoid needless stress. The upshot of this is we quite forgot in our retired befuddlement that this weekend happened to be a bank holiday, so we have simply swapped the stresses of time-pressure for those caused by holiday traffic.

Anyway, I am sitting here awaiting Gill's return from a second visit to the Dover store after we realised we had forgotten to purchase pasta. That was the main reason we went shopping in the first place. Not that I am complaining, I am quite happy here taking surreptitious photos of human shopping habits while trying to work out why I find Tesco the most annoying of the UK's major supermarket chains.

By rights it should be Waitrose, with all the bungaloid 'comfortably numb' tosh that surrounds their branding, pitched successfully to a broad section of the middle-classes, including brainless Guardian readers, habitual Times Sunday supplement addicts and the section of Radio 4 listeners​ who prefer the 'Archers' to 'In Our Time'. The pitch may be bloody annoying, but at least it is obvious, a 21st Century take on the 1980s predilection with 'lifestyle advertising'. 

Tesco's pitch is somewhat surreptitious, and hence quite subtle and more heinous. The company's approach is not new. The strap-line 'Every little helps' is marketing genius, vague enough to transcend class and cultural affiliations, yet able to connect with a fundamental urge in the British psyche that embraces the 'Dunkirk spirit', revels in 'make do and mend', suffers under the delusion that rationing was a healthy​ option and embraces the notion of austerity with such enthusiasm that in 2010 people voted in Cameron and Osborne on a ticket that promised Mr. Average would be worse off because it would be good for the country and help the bankers who had got us into the mess in the first place. 

Analysts reckon that the 1995 advertising campaign when Tesco first used the phrase built their regular customer base by more than a million people. No wonder it's one of the longest running slogans ever, such is its power to engage with core British values.

Every little helps.....
Equally clever is Tesco's strategy for engaging with a broad customer base which cuts across conventional market segmentation. Whereas Waitrose, M&S and Asda make a pitch to the values of the particular social groups that form the core of their customer base, Tesco, it seems to me, do something more subtle. They tweak the marketing of their products to quietly reflect widespread underlying cultural and socio-economic trends. 

Two examples. Last year when there was a lot in the news about climate change, environmental issues and food related issues like lactose intolerance and organic products, a brand called 'Nightingale Farm' suddenly appeared in Tesco's aisles. Stacks of fruit and veg appeared piled among the usual shelves. The produce was stored in traditional shallow cardboard boxes with a homespun looking label stamped on the side. Customers were meant to think that the superstores were supporting local growers and sourcing produce locally. Closer inspection revealed the produce had come, not from 'Nightingale Farm' but from Holland and Spain's rolling acres of plasticulture. The whole farmer Giles image was just a marketing ploy.

Today, wandering around the fresh fruit section of the Dover store, I noticed Tesco's latest wheeze. They have begun to price their loose produce in imperial as well as metric units. In smaller figures beneath the kgs., lbs. and oz. have made an unexpected comeback. This is not the first time recently I have noticed this. A couple of months ago the stallholders in Sunderland's main market had the produce marked up in imperial units. In a sense I was not surprised. Sunderland is a Brexit stronghold. However, for Britain's biggest supermarket chain to be doing the same is somewhat surprising. It's not that the company is making an overt pro-Brexit statement, more they are trying to key into the zeitgeist - the reactionary, traditional and nostalgic sentiments that lie behind the politics - a puerile, subconscious desire that 'wants our country bac,k'  yearning for a time before we joined common market, when everywhere was OMO white, women, and gays knew their place and everyone stood to attention at the end of the film for ''God Save the Queen,,. I honestly believe that the British public are not this gullible and hopefully Tesco's imperial pretensions will be greeted with the same scorn as the Nightingale Farm malarkey. At least I hope so. 

Not that we have to concern ourselves too much about such things, tomorrow we will be in France, where my grasp of the language is so poor, I spend the entire time totally clueless about what is going on. I think this may be preferable. Though it will be interesting to visit France when the final result of the election is announced. A Le Pen win is unthinkable. What matters is the size of her defeat. If she gets anywhere close to 40% of the popular vote then I think France, Europe and the world is in deep trouble, the march of popularist nationalism may be unstoppable and the prospect of the 2020s being a re-run of the 1930s a distinct possibility. It's a test of the wisdom of the French electorate. Let's hope they prove wiser than their English and American counterparts. 

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