City & Corporate: Public wants Tesco cut down to size

Tesco faces an interesting problem. It is without doubt Britain's most successful retailer and arguably one of the best-run businesses in the country. But almost every report of further success is met with quiet mutterings of unease and discontent.

The business still has its cheerleaders in the City, and rightly so.

But many people are beginning to think Tesco is too big and too powerful and are reacting against it.

This week saw the publication of a report by the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank quite close to the Treasury, which argued strongly that Tesco should be broken up.

There are parallels in the US. There the target is Wal-Mart, whose perceived arrogance and willingness to use every device within the law to advance its interests have begun to unnerve shareholders. Four of its funds have called for an independent review of what is going on, following the payment by the company of millions of dollars in fines for breaches of labour laws and the like.

Tesco's behaviour has been nothing like Wal-Mart, but its remorseless pursuit of planning permission smacks of a similar arrogance - or at least an unshakeable self-belief, which others might not share. Without this it might not have moved into convenience stores - which it did with the buyout of T&S stores - because this unsettled everyone else, with the possible exception of the competition authorities, who waved the deal through.

If Tesco is seeking to counter this, then its efforts are very low key.

It seems more focused on continuing to give shoppers value and letting results speak for themselves. But this is a balance-sheet approach to a problem that is not about pounds and pence. The perception is that the business is too powerful. It will require a step change in the company's PR to stop this developing into a real threat in the longer term.

- Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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