It was probably when the fourth giant Tesco opened within a few minutes
of my house that I began to realise just what Sainsbury’s are up
The roll-out has been swift, the stores instantly successful - until,
that is, the Environment Secretary went and spoilt the party by making
it tricky to get new sites. Tesco superstore openings were like
Stagecoach bus takeovers - there was always going to be another along in
It all prompted a local councillor to remark, after meeting some
miserable corner shop owners, that we might as well have done with it
and rename the place the London Borough of Tesco. Mind you, there could
be some unexpected benefits. If the stores get any more popular, they
can at least all share the same car park.
So eat your artichoke heart out David Sainsbury. You have nothing to
lose except your market share. And possibly a knighthood. Surely, if
Archie Norman takes Tunbridge Wells, they’ll have to give Sir Ian
McLaurin the keys to Number 10.
Meanwhile, it’s just as well that these grocery barons weren’t around to
wage their current marketing war in the 18th century. It could have had
tragic consequences because in those days most consumers couldn’t read.
(So what’s new, I hear you say).
Shop signs were just pictures and the retailers had to compete with
bigger and bigger signs. Only the government called a halt to this when,
in 1718, an enormous sign fell down in Bride Lane in the City of London,
killing four people.
Now, almost four centuries on, it may be that the battle of the
billboards is about to be fought again. In my neck of the woods, Tesco
has managed to slip a skyscraper of a sign past local planners. Ever
since, it has twinkled over the Hendon Way, allowing almost the entire
population of north-west London to see the time, to keep tabs on the air
temperature in downtown Neasden and to monitor the price of a litre of
Sainsbury’s has responded with an altogether more post-modern effort - a
tall sign painted a rather audacious shade of green artfully strung on
wires outside its Homebase branch on the Great West Road.
The sign is a landmark for anyone making a final descent by plane into
Heathrow. I’m sure it’s proving a potent weapon in luring those visitors
to Britain with a yen to put up a few shelves or creosote a fence or
And where will it all end? Well, look no further than Tinseltown itself
- Las Vegas - whose signs they say are clearly visible in outer space.
So it’s time to forget poxy loyalty cards, direct mail or media
advertising. The new marketing weapon, my friends, will be neon. You
heard it here first.
And remember, as they say in Vegas, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth
Nigel Cassidy is business correspondent of Radio 4’s Today Programme