Monthly Archives: September 2018

What Jack Did Next: Tesco’s new weapon in the superstore wars

Watching the games being played in the supermarket arena has always been great spectator sport, but right now things are particularly fascinating.

While the proposed merger between the old-established Asda and Sainsbury’s is resting in the lap of the Competition and Markets Authority, into the fray steps Tesco with its launch of Jack’s, which seems to be offering something rather new.

I know this because we’re already shopping there …

Along with other family members I’ve been to one of the two Jack’s which launched on September 19th. You may recall that in a Periscope broadcast I’d previously bemoaned the demise of the little Budgens supermarket which was sited just around the corner from where we live, here in Chatteris in Cambridgeshire. So this new development is greatly welcomed by locals. But the launch wasn’t just big news around these parts – it was featured as a major news story on the BBC News channel both on the launch day and on days before and after. Fame at last for little Chatteris!

Some people say that Jack’s will be targeting Aldi and Lidl customers. Here in Chatteris, Aldi was – until now – the only superstore in the immediate neighbourhood, in a prime site at the entrance to the town. About four years ago, it seemed that they would face a huge challenge from Tesco, who built a very large store just on the opposite side of the A141 road which skirts the town. But a new Chief Executive arrived at Tesco. Noting falling market share and sliding profits, he made a number of radical changes to the business. Tesco’s share of the grocery multiples market was 30.9% in 2012; in the 12 weeks ending 12th August, 2018, it was down to 27.4% (source: Statista). Discount chains Aldi and Lidl have made rapid progress – Aldi’s share is up from 3% in 2012, Lidl’s up from 2.8%.

It seemed quite bizarre at the time, but one of the first actions taken by the incoming Tesco CEO was to put the huge, just-completed store in mothballs (like some other Tesco new-builds around the country); that is, until very recently, when Poundstretcher – themselves in some difficulties if media reports are to be believed, moved into one side of the building.

Not long afterwards, rumours began circulating that Tesco was about to launch a newly-branded network. Lo and behold, the launches in Chatteris and Immingham were confirmed – and the white elephant across the way suddenly sported a large Jack’s logo. Soon, carrier bags emblazoned with the brand began to appear on the streets of Chatteris.

Jacob Edward Kohen, better known as Jack and later Sir Jack Cohen, was born on 6th October, 1898. He saw active service in the First World War, including a spell in the Royal Flying Corps. In 1924, he married Sarah (Cissie) Fox – no relation to your truly, as far as I’m aware – who was the daughter of an immigrant Russian-Jewish tailor. The money they received as wedding gifts went towards a new venture in wholesaling. It was in that year that he created the Tesco brand, the name formed by combining those of a tea supplier called T. E. Stockwell and the first two letters of his own surname. He owned and ran the company, expanding it largely through takeovers and mergers. By the time of his death in 1969, Tesco was the fourth largest store chain in the UK.

In the ‘sixties, self-service supermarkets began to appear everywhere. Smaller specialist retailers and traditional grocers were hit very hard. My mother had always shopped at Peglers, in Castle Street, in our home town of Caerphilly. It was a friendly little grocery shop, where the people behind the counter fetched the items, cut the cheese (sometimes Caerphilly cheese) and weighed out the potatoes, all the while loading the goods into a tall, round, brown paper bag. Handles would have helped, but that didn’t seem to matter.

I’ve found this extremely old photograph (even older than me!) of Peglers on the net. This may not be the actual shop but this is the kind of Peglers store front that I remember. It wasn’t actually on a corner, but Peglers was the very shop I had in mind when I wrote my song Corner Shop.

Interestingly, an Aldi leaflet which dropped through our door recently seemed to lay greater emphasis on the quality of the goods they have on offer. Whilst the usual money-off coupons were there in abundance, it appears that if you’re in need of Champagne, Blue Eggs, Aberdeen Angus Sirloin Steak and classy preserves, Aldi is the place for you.

I find this rather interesting. Although the point-of-sale marketing at Jack’s underlines the British sourcing of 80% of the goods on display, the main message one takes away is low price. In a post-Brexit environment, this combination of British-sourced and low prices may be extra-powerful.

The store was crowded on the day we visited. Most of the goods were food lines, but we spotted some electricals. Maybe the proximity to the next door Poundstretcher, with its bigger range of homewares, may over time spark some synergy between the two. And – here’s a thought – Tesco has been doing its own shopping recently, notably with its purchases of both Booker and Budgens. Could Tesco cast an acquisitive eye over its neighbour sometime soon?

One could sense a buzz about the place. And my own impression was that yes, prices were low, certainly for some of the KVIs (Known Value Items – my marketing training, y’know) that I’m aware of. No great claims about champagne and blue eggs. Another interesting aspect was that there was the option of using self-checkouts. I haven’t seen this at my local Aldi and indeed I’ve never found Aldi’s checkout system something to relish on my few visits to the store.

So the white elephant seems to have turned into a really useful addition to the retail scene, at least here in Chatteris.

But, as others have suggested, the really big elephant, stamping its feet outside the room, may be Amazon. That brand seems to have those feet in so many sectors at the moment that a move into superstore bricks and mortar may well be high on its wish list.


Credit: grocery statistics – Statista.



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Two forgotten space rocks

Obviously the Moon is our nearest neighbour in the solar system. But which is the next nearest? Venus? Mars? Or Mercury, perhaps? Yes, any one of these at times – but not all the time.*

Relative orbital positions are changing continuously, of course. But when appropriately aligned, and on fairly rare occasions, the second nearest heavenly body to Earth is in fact Deimos, one of the two moonlets of Mars, the other being Phobos. So, considering their relative proximity, why do we hear so little about them?

Is it because they’re just plain boring? Compared to the massive, swirling, Pollock-esque globe of Jupiter or the spectacularly pure tones of the other gas giants, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, these two lumps of rock are little more than king size boulders. They seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things planetisimal.

Yes, no doubt one of the reasons is that they’re so tiny. The smaller of the two, Deimos (pictured below), has a mean radius of only 3.9 miles. Phobos, although its radius is 7 miles, has a mass – the amount of material of which it is composed – seven times bigger than that of Deimos. Compare their diminutive dimensions with those of our own Moon with its radius about 1,080 miles.

Deimos is further out from the Martian surface than Phobos, at some 14,500 miles. Time and the gravitational pull of Mars have kneaded it into a rather odd shaped object, a bit reminiscent of some kinds of modernist sculpture.

Deimos is 56% of the size of Phobos. Deimos’ orbit is fairly regular, whereas that of Phobos is very rapid and eccentric. To an observer on Mars, Phobos (pictured below) would rise in the west and set in the east twice a day.

Actually, it’s grossly untrue to say that Phobos and Deimos are forgotten – certainly not by the scientific establishment. Just yesterday, for instance, a group of Japanese and American scientists published a research paper which concludes that “space weathering” on Phobos, in tandem with its eccentric orbit, has caused its surface to be divided into two distinct geologic units, known as the red and blue units.

They believe that much could be learned from exploration of Phobos. “With a better understanding of the surface and subsurface conditions on the Martian moon, the Phobos surface can become a ‘Rosetta-stone’ for understanding space weathering elsewhere in the solar system”, they suggest. The team has added one more theory to the wealth of speculation about the origins of the little moon. (Sometimes, the theories have seemed as eccentric as the Phobos orbit …).

There have been many attempts and proposals to mount dedicated missions to these two moons. None of the three dedicated return sample missions to Phobos was successful. So far, the most valuable observations of Phobos and Deimos were made in 1971 by NASA‘s Mariner IX spacecraft, which sent back a total of 7,000 images of both Mars and its two moons.

The most highly-anticipated mission to Phobos and Deimos is MMX, though this isn’t planned to launch for another six years – its scheduled launch date is September 2024. A very ambitious mission, MMX (see illustration below) will launch from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan and consist of an orbiter and lander, aiming to return surface samples from both moons, with the development of one of the spacecraft’s suite of seven science instruments being supported by NASA.

I wonder what it would be like to stand on Phobos (in particular) or Deimos and see almost the whole sky filled with a close-up view of the Red Planet? Only time will tell … but it seems reasonable to assume that space tourists will some day, in the next hundred years or so, use one, or both, of the moons as a viewing platform to look down on the Red Planet and observe its geographical features, its weather systems and the human settlements that have sprung up and are spreading across its surface.

Then again, the future is a process, not an event. It won’t take long to extract anything of geological value from these two little bodies. And once man-made structures swarm around the skies of Mars, offering scientists and holidaymakers alike a wide range of accommodation options, Phobos and Deimos may seem slightly irrelevant. Maybe they will be put to use by the military; maybe they’ll become private real estate owned by a Martian oligarch; or maybe they’ll be pushed away into the vastnesses of the universe, to clear a safer path for interplanetary transport?



Image credits (all): NASA
* Thanks to Mike Yamiolkoski for pointing out an error in the first version of this section

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