King Canute was a man who knew his limitations. Legend says that he
had his throne set on the seashore to prove to his sycophantic followers
that even he couldn’t command the waves to stop advancing any
So it goes with the tide of marketing progress. No matter how much
competitors stand and rail at the relentless onset of successful
competitive ideas that can change the rules, they are shouting into the
It’s pretty easy to tell when companies are beginning to squirm against
the inevitable. Take Tesco. Tesco has been applauded for doing a lot of
things right. But it appears to be somewhat rattled by the combination
of the continuing investigation by the Competition Commission into
supermarket food pricing and the potential impact on that pricing of the
arrival of Wal-Mart in the UK marketplace through its takeover of
The first sign came with the publication a week or so back of a survey
carried out for Tesco by market research group ACNielsen MEAL. It
compared a typical basket of 131 items from the UK retailer with leading
chains in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.
The results probably won’t come as a surprise. Tesco proudly claims that
the study shows that its prices on essential food items are 8% lower
than the European average. Some products were up to 20% cheaper. Well,
they would say that, wouldn’t they.
The second sign that Tesco is feeling ever so slightly on the defensive
came with reported comments from Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy in
The Sunday Times in an article on the forthcoming Wal-Mart
All this attendant publicity about just what impact Wal-Mart could have
on the UK retailing scene was all very well, he argued, but there was a
need to look at the ’bigger picture’, and not just focus on the domestic
market. ’We don’t want to wake up one day to find that one of the few
world-class British industries has fallen into foreign hands. You have
to ask who would really benefit from that.’
But that was a mistake: the playing of the national card can easily
After all, disgruntled consumers can reply, if we get a more competitive
deal and even better service from a foreign-owned company, what
difference does ownership make?
Another retailer that could learn a thing or two from King Canute is
Waitrose, the rather lofty food retailer in the John Lewis group. Its
marketing director, Mark Price, was reported to have described Boots the
Chemist as using ’Big Brother marketing tactics’ after it announced
plans to spend pounds 14m putting interactive terminals in 350 stores
offering customised promotions and discounts for the ten million holders
of its Advantage card.
He accused Boots of building up a ’sinister’ database, which raises big
issues about intrusion. Even worse, he declared , were the huge costs
involved, which someone had to pay for: ’Boots is certainly not being
philanthropic, and it is not straightforward, honest retailing.’
This is very strong stuff from a normally very reticent retailer - and
one not in direct conflict with Boots anyway - and speaks of all sorts
of hidden agendas. After all, information collection is now practically
a given. Waitrose itself has installed a self-checkout system in a
number of its stores based on its own cards, which means it can also
monitor information on shopping patterns.
In fact, what this vitriolic attack does seem to indicate is that
Waitrose, long resting on the laurels of being associated with the John
Lewis brand, no longer feels as aloof from the cold winds of competition
as it once did. But hitting out like a querulous child isn’t going to
make it any better.
It’s indeed tough and it’s disconcerting when the traditional
certainties of business disappear. But trying to turn back the tide is
pointless - and there’s a good chance you’ll drown in the process.