ANALYSIS: The battle rages for control of the aisles

Tesco has pulled ahead of Sainsbury’s and Safeway is closing in from third position, but in the supermarket stakes the race isn’t over and there’s room for some PR inspiration

Tesco has pulled ahead of Sainsbury’s and Safeway is closing in from

third position, but in the supermarket stakes the race isn’t over and

there’s room for some PR inspiration

If, as reported in the Guardian, supermarkets can hypnotise us into

buying groceries through a combination of colour, sound and lighting,

one wonders whether they are equally adept at manipulating their media

and public profiles.

A series of high level public relations appointments by three of the

‘big four’ during May suggests that they are making this a priority.

Last week Safeway hired Bill Hamilton and Ken Hunter to run public

affairs and internal communications respectively. And while Asda

replaced Alan Preece with Christine Watts as general PR manager,

Sainsbury’s moved in to poach Dominic Fry from Eurotunnel as its new

corporate affairs director. Tesco, on the other hand, remains aloof.

This realignment of generals reflects new strategies in the ‘trolley


Last year Tesco overtook Sainsbury’s for the first time in 15 years to

become the country’s biggest chain along with impressive profitability.

Tesco’s loyalty card was just the latest in a number of moves that has

transformed its ‘stack ’em high’ 1970s image into a retailer associated

with a forward thinking, customer-oriented approach.

And its spring recruitment of 4,500 extra packaging assistants and a

tier of customer relations managers resulted in bulging cuttings books.

‘Tesco has built a hugely powerful base with its customers’, says

Guardian retail correspondent Roger Cowe, ‘It has also benefited from

deputy MD Terry Leahy’s accessibility to the media.’

Cowe contrasts this with the more introverted style of David Sainsbury

whose company has been criticised for its ‘men in grey suits’ leadership

and anachronistic image.

This year Sainsbury’s saw its first fall in profits for 22 years. This

followed a year when it was frequently outflanked. David Sainsbury had

to back-track by introducing a Tesco-inspired loyalty scheme he had

previously slated as ‘glorified green shield stamps’.

Many feel Sainsbury’s middle-class positioning has become a weakness in

the 1990s and David Sainsbury conceded that it has allowed competitors

to catch up through more aggressive marketing.

As the top two battle for pole position, others are sharpening up their

acts. Both Safeway and Asda have increased market share in the last two

years. Safeway’s corporate affairs director Teresa Wickham believes

consistency in core brand values is the key to supermarket success.

‘Safeway now stands for innovation and service’ she said.

Behind the cliches, the company has put its money where its marketing

mouth is, launching a series of coups under marketing director Roger


The jewel in Partington’s crown is the ‘Harry’ commercial, achieving

hitherto unknown public recall for a food retail commercial and wide

press recognition.

‘Harry’, whose latest romantic liaisons with ‘Molly’ have been the

source of tabloid controversy, has succeeded in raising the profile of

Safeway as the family store.

The commercial and its PR fit into a wider communications strategy

‘Safeway 2000’ which aims to play down any yuppie image and build

loyalty among the highly lucrative young family customers.

Wickham’s other priorities are to improve internal communications and

retain the confidence of customers.

Asda, with more than 200 large stores but a fraction of the

communications staff of its competitors, takes a different approach. A

combination of a highly vocal chief executive Archie Norman and flat US

management structure, has given it the confidence to make more

adventurous PR forays. Positioning itself as representing the ‘great

British public’, Asda has adopted a campaigning stance on price-fixing

and recently announced its unilateral ban on non-British beef.

According to industry sources, on the day when Tesco launched its

packaging assistant initiative, Norman, not one to miss a publicity

trick, personally phoned broadcasters to say he was putting jugglers,

fire-eaters and clowns in the aisles.

Whether or not its competitors’ higher risk strategies eventually

backfire, Sainsbury’s has the most immediate image problem to overcome.

There are signs of moves in the right direction. Marketing director

Kevin McCarten, appointed in December, now has his feet under the table

and Dominic Fry joins later this summer.

Priorities for both will be to counter its potential over reliance on

own-label goods - as consumer preference swings back towards proprietory

brands - and to match Safeway’s family profile. New advertising which

broke on 23 May attempts to strike credibility into the store’s claim of

combining quality and value.

Head of press Diane Lamb says: ‘We never set out to become the biggest,

but we’re still a highly successful company and need to improve the

communication of our innovation and pricing.’

Individual jostling aside, the cosy oligopoly of the ‘big four’ now

seems to have fought off the threat of overseas discounters and it is

unlikely that price cutting will be as high profile this year.

Instead they jointly face the emerging issues of planning and ethics.

New stores are the prime opportunity for improved profitability and with

John Gummer’s planning curbs, the supermarkets are increasingly looking

to develop high street sites and convenience stories which will require

public affairs expertise.

Supermarketing’s editor Linda Pettit also identifies the area of food

quality: ‘Whereas the green issue has abated, supermarkets are now

recognising that consumer confidence must be maintained by more

attention to their own suppliers’ ethics and practices.’

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