business news in context, analysis with attitude

We’ve been writing a lot lately about Tesco’s US plans, and yesterday we posted an email from MNB user Michael F, Parker that read:

I agree with you that anyone who has been in the food business for any period of time will welcome a truly innovative and compelling retail format. Aldi, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s & Whole Foods have all been highly successful because they correctly identified their constituents and delivered a unique and relevant shopping experience to them.

From today’s comments it appears that Tesco wishes to appeal to a Wal-Mart customer who has a “fast-paced lifestyle” and wants “healthy prepared meals to go. If this assessment proves to be correct the Tesco people are geniuses for filling a need that totally escaped everyone in the retail food business.

Personally, I’m hoping that these news releases are intended to keep us in the dark as to their true strategy.

We responded, in part:

Don’t underestimate Tesco, its plans and its intentions. To do so would be a serious mistake, in our opinion.

And we would expect that if Tesco does one thing really well in the US, it will be to both define and know – really, really know – who its customer is and what that customer wants.

Parker was not happy with our response, and he wrote:

You really sidestepped my question. More clearly, does Tesco really think that Wal-Mart shoppers are “fast paced shoppers that want healthy foods to go” I’m not aware of any research that supports this contention. Thus, I believe they are doing a typically British thing of being “tongue–in-cheek concerning their target customer. Personally, I believe it is Trader Joe’s , without the right real estate.

I understand your desire to not antagonize a potential customer but you really owe us to be honest in your opinion. No need to respond as I’m already disappointed with your response.

You may think that there is no need to respond, but we think there is.

We went back to reread the original story and your emails, just to make sure that we weren’t missing something. Let’s be clear:

Tesco is often described as the Wal-Mart of the UK, and the original newspaper story that we quoted said that Tesco “is picking areas where Wal-Mart has yet to secure a dominant position.” But we think that referred more to geography than philosophy…while Tesco wants to appeal to “consumers with fast-paced lifestyles, with healthy prepared meals to go,” the story did not say that these consumers are Wal-Mart shoppers. In fact, the opposite probably is true. We also think that it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that California consumers have a fast-paced lifestyle and want healthier foods…that’d be our guess, and we also believe that Tesco likely has done extraordinarily comprehensive research to confirm and flesh this out.

You may be right about it being Trader Joe’s without the real estate. We don’t agree, but neither of us knows anything for sure. And you’re right…Tesco seems to be being both tongue-in-cheek and highly discreet in its revelations.

However, we would take issue with your comment, “I understand your desire to not antagonize a potential customer but you really owe us to be honest in your opinion.”

First of all, Tesco isn’t a customer. We’ve never gotten a dime from Tesco for anything, and don’t expect to. There may be readers from Tesco, but we think it is fair to say that we don’t shy from antagonizing readers.

We weren’t being dishonest in our opinion. But on second reading, we think we missed your point…so if we sidestepped your question, that was the reason.

We’re sorry if we disappointed you.

MNB user Linden Lauve also seems to be disappointed is us:

Reading the excerpts from today's Tesco article, I found it hard to believe that Tesco would be deliberately "picking areas where Wal-Mart has yet to secure a dominant position" (meaning Southern California) for its new store locations. I went back to the original source, the San Diego Union Tribune article, to see where that viewpoint came from. The article cites "industry watchers." That could be as few as two people, both anonymous.

The only other person asked about this issue, who was identified, did not agree with the "watchers." And the rest of the article mainly undermined their position. But these other points were not excerpted.

Now, on to the Starbucks drive-thru service article from Crain's Chicago Business. "According to Crain’s, the move represents a 'frontal assault' on McDonald’s." I don't see it that way. If Starbuck's product offering and pricing weren't so dramatically different from McDonald's, then maybe. But if Starbuck's primary strategy is to steal McDonald's customers, it's going about it in a very odd way.

So why would Crain's use the phrase "frontal assault?" Well, despite the "According to Crain's" phrase found in MorningNewsBeat, "frontal assault" never appears in the article. There is a reference to stepping onto McDonald's turf, but that's not necessarily the same thing. So where did "frontal assault" come from?

KC, your commentary is why I read the newsletter. Quite often I just skim the article excerpts, assuming they're accurate, balanced, etc. I'll be reading more closely from now on.

Fair enough.

We read about 20-25 newspapers a day online, and we try to do a good job excerpting relevant information and giving a sense of both their context and content. We don’t think that we misled anyone on either of these stories, certainly not intentionally…but we apologize if we inadvertently gave one opinion priority over another.

The words “frontal assault,” by the way, were ours – we did not pass those off as a quote from Crain’s. You could fairly argue that we indulged in a bit of hyperbole, but we still think that’s a reasonable characterization.

However, this letter does make us think that we need to be more careful about letting opinion bleed into the news stories. Unlike some media outlets, we’d concede that some of this is inevitable – we all show our opinions to a certain extent simply by the stories we choose and the positions we give them. In our case, our primary agenda is to pick stories that are provocative and relevant…and that offer an opportunity to get people to think about broad issues in new ways.

We can always do better.
KC's View: