Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.

How to do meetings

(Repost of an old blog from my former blogging provider!)

There’s an expression I use in meetings when people are engaging in wishful thinking instead of solving the problems at hand. When they’ve come to a convenient break in their flights of unproductive fancy, I jump in with:

‘…and while we’re in Lollipop Land, I’d like a pink-maned pony to ride across the candyfloss clouds.’

In other words, I run a tight meeting. Get me leading a table and you’ll see decisions made and minutes acted on with a clear sense of purpose, everything tight as a drum. It’s not hard. Here’s how I do it.

1. Set a start time. And keep to it. It’s far too easy to lose 30 minutes or more waiting for stragglers to arrive. If the meeting starts at 10am, start it at 10, and anyone not there loses the right to be involved. They’ve missed the Chocolate-Frosted Choo-Choo that brings them to the meeting room, and they’ll have to stay over in Lollipop Land.

2. Communicate the meeting’s purpose. All meetings should have ONE purpose and ONE major outcome. Meetings are to decide things, not discuss them. If people start wandering off track, ask them how that conversation is contributing to the meeting’s purpose – or give them the line above. You may as well mention Sugarcane Mountain while you’re at it.

3. Tell people what their role is in the meeting. In other words, make sure everyone knows their area of responsibility. And don’t let them step outside it – because perversely, the best performers at work are often the worst at meetings: experts tend to think their expertise reaches beyond their area of knowledge, and will grab any opportunity to demonstrate this. Don’t let them. Every Yummy-Scrumptious Pebble on Lollipop Land’s beaches is different, but not one has more than one flavour.

4. Tell people it’s okay not to come, and that if they don’t, decisions will be made without them. You don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly possible to do this diplomatically – ‘If you feel this would not be a good use of your time, please tell me and I’ll cc you the minutes’. And while they’re in Lollipop Land, they can get you a cookie.

5. Practice lock-out for latecomers. People must understand that the meeting fulfills a business purpose and that if they miss it they’re preventing that purpose from being met.

6. Have a chairman. All meetings need a leader. And that’s not just a note-taker (ideally someone else takes the scribe role) – the leader introduces topics, summarises decisions taken, gets agreement, and moves down the agenda at a set rate.

7. Specify a finishing time. More important than you think. Few meetings need longer than an hour; most can be done in 30mins, and plenty can happen by phone or IM without travel involved. There’s no need to take the Choo-Choo all around Sugarcane Mountain when you only want to go as far as Gingerbread Station.

8. Issue the minutes. A single page with a title, participant list, date and time, a paragraph, and bullet points of what was done. The most important is the one-paragraph (even better, one-line) summary of what the meeting achieved, which should always include context of what needs to happen as a result of that decision.

9. Keep your eyes on the clock. If the first agenda item of 6 takes half an hour, you’re in line for a three-hour meeting – which is too long. Agree a set time at the start – say, ten minutes per agenda item. If the strawberry-shortcake clock in Lollipop town centre strikes 12, you might be stuck in Lollipop Land forever!

10. Close the meeting properly. When the end time approaches, the chairman should summarise the decisions and firmly close the meeting. If you let the conversation wander aimlessly or peter out, you’re on the fast track to Sugarcane Mountain. If you’ve dealt with everything early, then close the meeting early! ‘Fill all the time’ is never a meeting objective.

Lastly, the best advice of all: don’t go to meetings! At least 75% of meetings are unnecessary. Cancel three meetings a week, and you’re putting a whole morning’s worth of time back in your day. And over time, the quality of the meetings you do go to will rise – because people will assume if ‘the guy who doesn’t go to meetings’ is there, it must be important.

No accounting for socialists

I’m at the other end of the political spectrum, but I’d really like to at least *respect* the few hundred motley socialists gathered in the City of London. The trouble is, they’re just so…. daft. Take this report in the Telegraph.

“The richest 10pc of the UK population have a combined personal wealth of £4 million, million. A one-off 20pc tax on those people would raise £800 billion. Those people can afford it, they’d feel no pain, they’re so fabulously wealthy. With that sum of money you could pay off the entire government deficit. No need for any public spending cuts.”

“Protester Peter Tatchell” aptly demonstrates the biggest problem with the Left: its complete inability to do basic maths.Let’s skip over the fuzzymouthed phrasing (£4 trillion would sound less preteen, buddy) and take a look at what this socialist’s “solution” would actually involve…

He wants £800bn. So let’s assume that “rich” ten percent, 5.8 million UK residents, is okay with paying an average £137,000 each. Whoops! First mistake right there!

In Britain today, people at the 90th percentile (those Tatchell calls “rich”) earn about £40k. Hmm. That’s the income of a hardworking plumber or electrician putting in overtime. Are these people “rich”? If that describes your household income, “beware” indeed: the lefties want five years’ aftertax salary from you. My word, this guy’s truly from the Gordon Brown School of Public Finance, where taxpayers’ money is something that rains from the sky in infinite quantity.

A silly socialist, doing silly socialist things

A silly socialist, doing silly socialist things

But what the hell, this is socialist arithmetic. So they could sell their houses to be part of this socialist utopia, right? Hmmmm again. The top 10% of the UK possess average wealth of about £60,000, mostly in the value of their homes. So at his suggested 20% level, the average tax per person will be about £12k, and most people will have to sell their homes to pay it.

And wait, wait… that’ll raise less than a tenth of the £800bn he feels entitled to! What a silly little socialist.

Next up for critiquing: the “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions. Which would, in socialist speak, “reduce speculation and be good for the economy, and raise at least £100 billion a year.

Hmmmmm once more. What happens in a global economy, Mr Socialist? When business feels squeezed, business goes elsewhere. Sweden had a nice little financial sector before 1984; when it introduced a Tobin Tax, they expected it to raise a billion and a half kroner a year. Nope. The business fled, and the tax never raised more than a twentieth of that level. Today, let’s just say if you want a job in finance, Sweden’s not the best place to look for it.

So, in summary: what this socialist suggests would raise less than a tenth of what he wants and throw over 5m people out on the streets. Perhaps that’s what he wants: socialists love the downtrodden.

Definition of a Socialist: someone who really, really likes getting his hands on someone else’s money. As I said, I wish I could at least respect them, even if their views are different to mine. But I just can’t.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Ok, so it’s not getting great reviews, and when a girlfriend pouts her way through the whole two hours it’s a fair bet she doesn’t like it either*. But I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Which means it’s fair to say you probably won’t.

It was obvious rather a lot of the audience were expecting a James Bond-style thriller. (Comments overheard on the way out: “appalling”, “junk”, “boring”, “slow”.) But I take that as a sad indictment of today’s want-it-all-now, over-stimulated, X-factor’d up society – a society of instant gratification where not having to wait for stuff is seen as a basic right.

But real films are narratives, not rollercoasters. To get this film you’ve got to sit quietly and actually listen. Which, let’s face it, is more than most people are capable of these days. This film is a piece of art – from its pixel-perfect 1970s sets (remember those funny-looking Saabs and cans of Harp?) to the quality of the acting.

I’ve never quite “got” Colin Firth – nor what women see in him; he always seems to spend about a third of his screen time blubbing. But he’s pretty good here – and it says something that in TTSS, he’s one of the worst-cast. And Gary Oldman’s George Smiley IS the Le Carre original. The slightly effete awkwardness of the harmless-looking middle-aged man who was actually the most effective agent on either side of the Cold War … Oldman captures every twitch and shuffle. The one occasion he holds a gun, it’s dangling unwanted at his side, a slightly distasteful accoutrement rather than a tool of the trade. And there are a LOT of extreme close-ups. Half the narrative is in facial expressions; this dialogue-driven film has relatively few words-per-minute. People are civilised, waiting for each other to finish a sentence before presenting their rebuttal.

(Is this gentlemanliness what’s missing from British society today? The chavster classes inhabiting so much of the mass media don’t have the wit or breeding to consider any situation not pertaining directly to themselves?)

And the narrative gains a lot from being pared back to a movie’s essential elements. The setpieces are terraced townhouses and workaday government offices; SiS high command inhabits a grimy Cambridge Circus building and the overseas headquarters are grimy import/export sheds. You get the feeling this is how intelligence work really was during the Cold War – a lot of dull hours waiting around at Teletype Terminals, where privileged but intelligent and civilised men pondered tiny scraps of information and deducted Red military policies and Kremlin power structures from a half-hidden salute in an old photograph.

(Of course, the blue connections and personal relationships of such groupings led to things like the Cambridge Five in real life, but the point stands: this film works.)

And because it was a more formal decade, protocol and procedure seem a lot more important. Simple acts like looking up files in a fifth floor archive are imbued with sweaty-collared menace … no Tom Cruise wirobatics, no webs of red lasers, just the clenching anguish of doing stuff you’re not supposed to be doing. Everyday tradecraft was about not leaving a paper trail, right down to swapping bag-check chits and leaving woodchips in the doorjamb. You never see James Bond walking around in his socks while a friend listens underneath to see if the floorboards will creak, but such details are what distinguish a good agent from a bad one. The beauty is many such scenes are never explained; you’re left to work it out for yourself.

Go and see “Tinker Tailor”. Chances are you’ll hate it.

And by the way, Odeon, your cinema is still crap. For future reference, it’s normal practice to TURN THE LIGHTS OFF BEFORE THE FILM STARTS, without members of the audience having to come out of the theatre to tell you.

 

*Possibly connected to me upending her popcorn before the film started.

A friendly rebuff to Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren is a non-crazy left-of-centre US politician. Circulating on Facebook is a neat little vignette about a reasonable view of social democracy.

I actually agree with her statement (left) that wealth-creators should pay their share of taxes – but think it’s incomplete without a dig at the wealth-consumers. Plenty of US pols (like the weirdo bunch calling themselves Republican presidential contenders) are anti-tax, but most of them have always taken a public sector salary, so their views don’t exactly carry water. Here’s my quick rewrite from the right side of the fence …

There is nobody in the government who creates wealth. Nobody. You’re in the public sector out of a sense of duty to others and a desire to contribute to society? Good for you.

But I want to be clear. The services you provide are paid for by the wealth-creating part of society. Your salary is paid out of the taxes levied on the private sector. Your immense job security is made possible by the private sector’s ability to grow the economy. You’ll be safe in retirement, because your government pension is guaranteed by the taxes from people whose benefits are far, far lower. You don’t have to worry that marauding private sector workers will bring the country to a standstill by striking, because people in the private sector lose their jobs if they pull that stuff…

Now look. You joined the UK public sector, and you provide halfway decent services without wanting a kickback. That’s great! Keep on doing it. But part of the underlying social contract is that you understand you’ve got a terrific deal. You’ve got better job security, higher average salaries, and massively better retirement benefits even with the proposed reforms that ask you to pay a little bit more and retire a little bit later. So can you think again about all this strike action, guys?