Alan Dee: I cut back on the ice cream, and it’s a meltdown...

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THE fuss over grocery giant Tesco’s less than stellar showing in the run-up to Christmas has proved pricey, to say the least.

Faced by a minor dip in takings, the level-headed long termists who control the stock market did what they always do – panicked, in a knowing sort of way, in a bid to create circumstances that would allow them to profit from someone else’s perceived misfortune.

So even though Tesco was owning up to sales that were only 2.5 per cent down, the subsequent flurry of financial horse-trading saw £5 billion wiped off the value of the company.

Let’s get a few things clear. Tesco may not be my favourite supermarket, and indeed having a favourite supermarket is not something to which I aspire. They stock things I need, I buy them when I need them, that’s as far as the relationship goes.

But whatever you think of their business methods, you can’t deny that they – and their follow monster retailers – have done us all a favour in many ways.

They may have killed off many independent High Street businesses, but if what you’re after is clean, clearly-priced produce all under one roof and you don’t want to be ripped off in the process, they take some beating.

If, for some reason, you also want lunch while you’re there, or a tank full of fuel, then look no further.

That’s why Tesco still makes a shedload of cash – in an intensely competitive market, with tight margins and relentless pressure to perform, there’s no denying that they do the business.

It’s probably escaped the notice of the dunderheads who inhabit the trading floors and the finance houses, but we’re going through some tough times.

Tesco customers don’t have as much cash to throw around as they may once have had, so when they’re doing the weekly shop they probably hold back on that tub of ice cream or packet of chocolate biscuits – there’s a 2.5 per cent drop in takings. Simples.

Industry analysts grumble that they haven’t been performing well in the home electronics area, and there’s a good reason for that, too.

How many people do you know who haven’t already helped themselves to a widescreen TV? And how often do you imagine people swap their screens? It’s a saturated market, but a supertanker of a business like Tesco can’t turn around on a sixpence.

One thing that has cheered my in all the hand-wringing over the retailer’s future is the apparent agreement between industry analysts that the days of the super-sized shed store are over.

Thank goodness for that. Any shop that’s bigger than a football pitch may offer choice galore, but entering these cathedrals of commerce makes me feel queasy. I try not to use stores which can’t easily be reached on foot, because it only encourages them.

But if Tesco doesn’t need all the land it has stored up for new supersheds, it sounds as if there might be a deal to be done.

How about handing it all over in lieu of a tax bill, on the condition that it’s used for social housing? It might only be a start towards addressing some of the issues bedevilling the construction industry and the housing market, but as I believe someone once said, every little helps