Monday, June 16, 2008

Wal-Mart and Tesco: The Cross-Atlantic Competition Continues to Heat Up; Almost Hot Enough to Make Uber-Cool British Secret Agent James Bond Flinch

Andy Bond, the CEO of U.S.-based Wal-Mart, Inc.-owned Asda, the United Kingdom's second-larget supermarket chain after Tesco, doesn't have a license to kill like the famous British secret agent he shares a last name with, writer Ian Fleming's James Bond, Agent 007 of book and movie fame. But this week Bond (Andy) has earned himself a license to brag.

Last week, on June 11, Andy Bond-led Asda was the first UK supermarket chain to take home three "Grocer 33" awards at the annual "The Grocer Gold Awards," created and produced by the UK supermarket industry trade publication The Grocer.

Wal-Mart-owned Asda took three first place "Grocer 33" awards in three categories: Lowest priced grocery chain, best service, and best availability. It was the 11th year in a row in which Asda won first in the lowest prices category. However, no other UK grocery chain has ever won three firsts until now.

Upon excepting all three awards, Andy Bond, Asda CEO and president, said: "This is an outstanding achievement and a very proud moment. These awards are a real testament to the fantastic work and dedication of all the colleagues across the company."

Bond (Andy) is walking tall this week. The very next day after the awards ceremony, June 12, Bond and company at Asda took out double-truck advertisments in the major UK newspapers touting the retailer's trifecta of first place awards at the the "Supermarket Oscars," which were held on the evening of June 11 at the swank Dorchestor Hotel in London.

Additionally, word is that in the modestly decorated halls of Wal-Mart, Inc. headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, Andy Bond is on his way to becoming Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott's favorite Bond. It's known Scott has always enjoyed the James Bond movies, but sources now say he has a growing preference and like for international Wal-Mart division CEO's named Bond, even over highly popular but fictitious secret agents with the same last name.

Here's the thing about the UK food and grocery retailing "Oscar's" though: just like the real Oscars, the Academy Awards held each year in Hollywood USA, the winners of "The Grocer Gold Awards" also are chosen not by the people (consumers) but by a panel of industry experts and members of the staff of The Grocer magazine. In other words, like the Academy Awards, the winners are chosen by members of their own industry.

Except for one award that is. That award, "Britain's Favorite Supermarket," is chosen based on a survey of UK consumers conducted by The Grocer. And the winner is: Tesco. Yes, according to The Grocer, Tesco was chosen as "Britain's Best Supermarket" by a poll of consumers, which when it comes to sales is probably the best award of the night that any food retailer could receive.

Tesco also won a "Grocer 33" award (voted on by the experts) for being the UK's best online retailer.

The overall "Grocer of the Year Award," which honors the best across all categories, went to the UK's fourth-largest (in market share) supermarket chain Morrisons, largely the judges said based on its successful integration of the Safeway chain which it aquired two years ago and Morrison's turning in a sterling performance, becoming the highest market share percentage gainer in the industry last year.

The big loser at the modestly refered to red carpet grocery industry "Oscars" at the Dorchester on June 11 was Sainsbury's, the UK's number three (and a very close number two to Asda) supermarket chain. The panel of judges comprised of The Grocer staffers and food and grocery industry experts didn't give one "Grocer 33" "Oscar" to the food retailer. This is odd in many ways in that Sainsbury's regularly receives top marks across the board from UK consumers. Of course, the Dukes of Hazzard movie was a major box office success in the U.S., but didn't fair too well (zero mention let alone an award) at the Academy Awards in Hollywood that year none-the-less.

The "Grocer Gold Awards," which were started by The Grocer in 2003, and now are sponsored by corporations Sony, Barclay Business Bankcard and Reach, Inc., had a brand new category this year, reflecting the industry's increased emphasis on green or environmental retailing. The winner of the new category, "Green Retailer of the Year," was the UK Co-operative Group, which operates food and grocery stores throughout the UK, with an emphasis on sustainability.
The event also awarded numerous other retailer's "Grocer 33" awards in various other categories, along with offering awards in the wholesaler and manufacturer sectors as well. You can view a complete list of the awards and winners here.

Despite losing the coveted "Best Grocer" award as judged by the UK consumers surveyed to Tesco, Asda CEO Andy Bond has earned at least a week's worth of walking on air and bragging rights. After all, even though the Wal-Mart-owned British supermarket chain is number two in UK market share, (it's share a little over 16%), it's market share remains nearly half that of leader Tesco, which controls about 31% of the UK food and grocery market. Therefore, in "if size matters" terms, Asda acheived quite well, according to the Uk industry experts who voted on the winners.

But Asda, which Wal-Mart acquired not all that long ago, has struggled for years to make its mark on UK food and grocery retailing (as well as other forms of retailing as it's a hard and soft goods retailers as well as grocery retailer like Tesco is) and finally seems to be getting its groove on a bit. In fact, just a few years ago there was serious talk by Wal-Mart of selling Asda. However, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has decided against that, and Wal-Mart now is in the midst of a major expansion program for Asda, which includes opening numerous new stores in the UK, as well as remodeling and upgrading many existing ones.

Additionally, the Tesco vs. Wal-Mart competitive battle has taken on new dimensions with Tesco's launch last November of its first small-format Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market grocery stores in the Unted States.

Even though he won't publicly say so, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott does not want Tesco to become a major player in U.S. food and grocery retailing; even a major regional player. That's why in part Wal-Mart is building even more Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets of its own in California, Nevada and Arizona, the three states where Tesco currently has its 61 combination basic grocery and fresh foods small-format (10,000 -to- 13,000 square feet on average) grocery stores.

Additionally, as we've reported on Fresh & Easy Buzz, Wal-Mart starts opening the first four of its own small-format (15,000 -to 20,000 square feet on average) combination basic grocery and fresh foods Marketside grocery stores in the Phoenix, Arizona Metropolitan region this summer.

The Marketside small-format grocery stores have numerous qualitiative or format differences compared to Fresh & Easy: they will be more upscale; the fresh foods will be prepared in-store in a kitchen, as well as having in-store seating for a limited number of shoppers to eat-in as well as pick up take out; price won't be as big a focus as Tesco is putting on it at Fresh & Easy; along with a few other key differences.

However, make no mistake about it: combined with its huge Supercenters and it's 45,000 square foot Neighborhood Markets, there will be a Wal-Mart effect on Fresh & Easy in markets such as the Phoenix, Arizona Metro region, as there is and will continue to be on all retailers in the market, and elsewhere in the U.S.

Wal-Mart currently has 70 Supercenters which average about 180,000 square feet in Arizona, about 20 of its 45,000 square foot Neighborhood Markets (about the same as Tesco's current Fresh & Easy store count), and of course four initial small-format Marketside stores on the way. Wal-Mart is building and opening more Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets in the state, and will likely open far more than just four Marketside stores down the road.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart's Lee Scott has a renewed interest in building the Asda chain in the UK, some say in part because Tesco has come to Wal-Mart country--the U.S. But of course that's secondary. Primary is simply Wal-Mart's imparitive to be the biggest retailer everywhere, which is the same imparitive which got it to be the world's largest corporation and retailer today.

Scott also reportedly has lots of confidence in Andy Bond, which we are told has been reinforced by winning the trifectra of awards at the June 11 supermarket Oscars in the UK. Of course Wal-Mart's Scott is a numbers and sales man. Industry awards are fine, but for about a day to Scott. But they also indicate forward progress for Asda as judged by vendors and other peers in UK food and grocery circles, which Scott likes to hear, since vendors are a big part of the Wal-Mart international value proposition.

So, this week Andy Bond, unlike his namesake James, gets to step out rather than spend his time out in the cold like Agent 007 did most of the time. Of course Bond (James) had many a lovely companions to spend his spy time out in the cold with, so please to feel sorry for the secret agent.

Awards from ones peers are nice. Just ask the Hollywood stars who win Oscars, despite the films they win the statues for having tanked at the box office in many cases.

But like in Hollywood, the food and grocery retailing business is all about bottom line numbers in the final analysis. Big box office means strong sales and profits in the retail grocery business. Major growth means increased market share.

Wal-Mart-owned Asda has a long ways to go before it will make inroads on market share leader Tesco in the UK. And with UK "Grocer of the Year" Morrisons on a market share roll, Asda, and Bond's (Andy) task is even more formidable. Not to mention Sainsbury's, which dispite scoring goose eggs at the awards ceremony from the industry experts, has been turning in some pretty good performance of it's own to date. In fact, if Asda doesn't play hardball in the James Bond style, it might find Sainsbury's overtaking the Wal-Mart-owned retailer for the number two market share spot in UK food and grocery retailing.

Like the spy world inhabited by James Bond as depicted by author Ian Flemming, namesake Andy Bond lives and works in a near-equal world of intrigue: food and grocery retailing.

There are spys, counter spys, friends and foes alike. The stakes aren't as high as giving ones life--after all Andy Bond has yet been given his license to kill by the Queen--but from a a business standpoint they couldn't be higher. Each additional share of market represents big bucks. And, after all, big bucks--in the form of sales, profits and market share--are the industry's primary scorecards. And like James Bond's famous boss Q., Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott can be a tough task master.

At home and abroad respectively, Wal-Mart and Tesco are keeping their cool in a way that would make the unflappable James Bond proud. But make no mistake about it, the competition is just heating up in such a way that it could even make the normally super-cool Agent 007 flinch.

While at home in the UK Tesco remains "Goldfinger" with the midas touch, the retailer has heavyweights in the form of Wal-Mart-owned Asda and fellow British supermarket giants Sainsbury's and Morrisons nipping at its market share heels, not to mention that German panzer division, in the form of German discount grocers Aldi and Lidl, both which are gaining significant market share during these tough economic times in the UK.

In the U.S., Wal-Mart's three format press in the Arizona market--Supercenters, Neighborhood Markets and soon small-format Marketside--will test Tesco's fledgling Fresh & Easy stores big time.

None-the-less, Tesco is pressing on and will start opening many more Fresh & Easy stores in Arizona, Southern California and Nevada beginning on July 2, after taking a three month new store opening pause. Further, anybody who rules Tesco out in the U.S. does so potentially at their own peril, even Wal-Mart when it comes to the long term.

Not only is the cross-Atlantic competition heating up, it's nearly as exciting as an Ian Fleming James Bond thriller. Stay tuned.

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