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Tesco’s 5p reputation

Tesco has had its fair share of bad PR over the years, and as a result spends a great deal of resource and time superintending its reputation. Anyone who follows the legal media will know that it is currently facing a Serious Fraud Office investigation, advised by at least two firms in the sector.

Senior management focus is very much on this – depending on the outcome, those senior heads could role, and they will have any number of legal and PR advisers entrenched with them. Such an investigation is extremely serious – but in PR terms it has hardly gone ‘viral’.

However, a seemingly trivial incident has. I speak of course of the failure to see what kind of disaster could occur as a result of introducing a charge for shopping bags. Most supermarkets have justified this charge on the basis of reducing plastic bag consumption in order to reduce the impact they have on the environment – and, in fact, it has even now been written into law so Tesco had no choice.

So, is the introduction of the 5p bag charge at Tesco in itself a PR disaster? Well no you wouldn’t have thought so – given that there have been no violent scenes at Waitrose or Marks & Spencer after the introduction of charges for certain bags. However, it might be worth remembering the customer demographics that these different supermarkets cater to when taking in the facts of this less than flattering Tesco PR story – understanding your customer is pretty key in PR.

It all started with a female customer of Tesco who went to her local store to pick up some lunch and didn’t want to pay for a plastic bag as she had one in her car. The woman – Khalia Smith – decided that in order to get the groceries from the store to the car, she would simply use one of the wire shopping basket, and return it after she had put the products into the bag in her car. But staff at the Tesco had other ideas and confronted her in the car park outside the super market. In fact, one of them went so far as to try and grab the basket from Khalia and accused her of stealing everything in it. When the security guard said Khalia couldn’t take the basket off the premises, she replied that she was still in the car park, perhaps not yet off the premises.

The response? “You can’t take the basket because Tesco does not allow baskets to be taken to the car park because we are losing a lot.”

According to the security guard, the introduction of the 5p charge meant that store had seen more people trying to use the wire baskets to transport goods to cars or even home – and then not returning them. Unfortunately for Tesco Khalia filmed the whole episode and of course this is now all over social media.

This is a prime example of a business not understanding its demographic and not thinking through reactions to policy changes. Tesco prides itself on being one of the less expensive stores so any market researcher could have told them that its customers might well balk at a 5p charge – the same price as the much more expensive stores – even if it was introduced in response to a change in the law.

A better informed, less rigid and more understanding response to customers trying to get around the charge and get goods from the store to their cars could have prevented this bad PR. Tesco eventually released a statement and said that customers could ‘of course’ use the baskets to transport items to their cars as long as they are returned but the damage was already done.

The lesson, of course, is know your market. Still, after a hard day slogging their way through a complex investigation, at least SFO officials now have some amusing footage to wind down with, watching and sharing on the social media platform of their choice.

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