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For Shufersal, the leading food retailer operating supermarkets in Israel, it looks like the sky is the limit. This is a message strongly received from the CEO of Shufersal, Itzhak Aberkohen, in a recent interview given to Globes business newspaper (for its annual publication of consumer-based equity-ranking of brands, July 2017). Shufersal is already a major national retailer, but since the collapse and sell-off of the main competing food chain Mega last year the road ahead is clear more than ever for Shufersal to ride on to stardom. The plans presented by the retailer’s CEO are definitely leading in that direction on different fronts.

  • Note: Shufersal has also been known as ‘Supersol’ but it appears that the retailer is moving to suppress that name in favour of enhancing its Shufersal brand name. The original name chosen for the retailer almost sixty years ago was composed by joining two words: ‘Shufra’ from Aramaic meaning excellent and ‘Sal’ which means basket in Hebrew. The retailer founded the first modern American-style supermarket in Israel in Tel-Aviv in 1958. Israelis frequently name the retailer ‘Supersal’ or ‘Shufersal’. The official choice of ‘Shufersal‘ by the company should make the consumers happy while remaining as true as possible to the legacy name.

The retailing company Shufersal operates over 270 stores. They are divided into multiple sub-chains of different store formats, designed to target different consumer segments or accommodate distinct shopping situations or goals. Three main sub-chains are: “My Shufersal” (the core sub-chain of ‘classic’ supermarkets in neighbourhoods); “Shufersal Deal” (large discount stores); and “Shufersal Express” (small convenience stores in neighbourhoods). Like most food chains, the stores offer in fact not only food and drink products but a larger variety of grocery and housekeeping products, and may sell as well toiletry or personal care products. Shufersal operates in addition a channel for online or digital shopping. It also has its own brand of products carrying the retailer’s name. The CEO seeks to enhance the company’s capacities in these domains, and then extend further. An important aspect in his plan is the digital transformation of the company’s retail operations and services.

  • Note that supermarkets in various countries may selectively add in different times and locations other product ranges (e.g., books and magazines, electric home equipment, housewares).

Shufersal is now on the verge of making a strategic entry into the field of ‘pharma’ retailing with the acquisition of New-Pharm, the second-sized pharma chain in the country. The food retailer already sells toiletry products in its stores, as indicated above, but it has no access to cosmetics (e.g., perfumed lotions, make-up) and non-subscription medications (via pharmacy departments). Taking over New-Pharm would provide it with this capability through the pharma-dedicated and licensed stores. The dominant leader in pharma in Israel is Super-Pharm, which gets the respect of Mr. Aberkohen as a successful and highly professional retail competitor in that field. Shufersal should be able to get better terms for purchasing toiletry products for its supermarkets and other stores, but the addition of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals seems less fitting its current line of business. It makes sense if the retailer had department stores where one of the departments would sell cosmetics, but that is not the case of Shufersal; it would probably have to operate the pharma stores separately. Undertaking the responsibility of operating pharmacies could create even greater complications that may outweigh the benefit of margins from selling OTC medications, nutrition supplements and other devices.

The deal is still awaiting approval of the antitrust supervisor by the end of August 2017. The main obstacle comprises 6-8 flagship stores that the supervisor may not allow the food retailer to have. Aberkohen has said in the interview that the acquisition of the pharma retailer would not be worth it without those stores. There could be additional restrictions due to vicinity of “Deal” stores and “My” supermarkets to some New-Pharm stores.  Aberkohen believes that the increased variety and assortment of toiletry products the company will be able to sell together with the new categories will make an important contribution to its sales potential but will also create a more balanced competitive challenge against Super-Pharm (i.e., as two equivalent retail powers) that will benefit consumers in personal care and grooming. The suppliers are concerned, however, that the bargaining power of Shufersal will become significantly, perhaps exceedingly, stronger in toiletry, and that the retailer will link the trading terms for their presence in New-Pharm stores with presence of their products in the Shufersal stores (Globes [Hebrew], 15 August 2017).

Shufersal’s CEO seems to have little regard for its follower Mega under a new ownership. Most of the chain, neighbourhood supermarkets (“Mega City”, 127 stores), was bought from a holding company (“Alon Blue Square”) in a rather bad state by a medium-sized food retailer of discount warehouse-like stores (“Bitan”) in May 2016. Other discount stores were sold and distributed among some smaller discount retail chains. Since then a few more supermarkets of Mega were apparently sold or closed. Bitan has roughly more than doubled the total number of stores in its ownership since acquiring Mega (on a scale from 70-80 to 180-190). Aberkohen argues that Bitan seems to be taking hold of the operation of Mega City but there is still much work ahead to re-organise its whole retail business. Occasional signs in the stores imply that the new owner is still grappling in effort to manage the additional supermarket chain. There will also come a time to deal with the effort and redundancy of keeping two unconnected brands of the two sub-chains of discount stores and supermarkets (“Bitan Wines” and “Mega City”, respectively).

Mr. Aberkohen has no greater regard for the other discount food retailers (the more familiar and popular of them is “Rami Levy” with 44 stores, increasing by 10 stores in the past year). In his view, Shufersal does not consider itself as opposed to Rami Levy or the other players; it is engaged in its own plans and mission with a focus on innovation. A key to success in the long-term, in his opinion, is an emphasis on managing existing (‘same’) stores and innovation, not adding more and more floor area. He thus maintains that while the competitors, particularly Bitan/Mega, are so busy handling the additional space in new stores, Shufersal will have the time it needs, as a window of opportunity, to create innovation (e.g., Internet, robotics) and gain an advantage of 3-5 years ahead.

  • So far consumers have not gained in terms of cost of shopping from the deal of selling Mega. According to Israeli business newspaper “Calcalist” there are worrying signs to the contrary. Mega under its new ownership has not been pressuring prices downwards (attributed to financial obligations of its owner Nahum Bitan), and Shufersal that had identified this weakness, took the opportunity to raise prices in its stores while gaining in bargaining power vis-à-vis its suppliers. A rise in prices (i.e., index of barcoded products) and an increase in sales revenue in the food retail sector (including non-barcoded outlets) point to a change in trend from 2014-2015.

The CEO of Shufersal is looking forward to digital transformation of retailing and shopping experiences, involving innovation both in online self-service customer-facing platforms and in the preparation and delivery of online orders. He expects great advances in the operation of logistic centres where robots and humans will take part in collating products from shelves for online orders and packing them for dispatch and delivery to customers. Three centres are in development. Enthusiastically, he proclaims that the online apparatus will involve a lot of automation, digital (features) and robotics.

Shufersal is clearly adopting the new language of data-driven marketing, Big Data, and digital automation of interactions with its customers-shoppers. The company is said to pull together to that aim its information systems, supply chain, and data pools from its customer loyalty club and club of credit card holders. This will enable it in the future to customise offers and services much better to its customers. Aberkohen talks of providing services to suppliers based on their platform of big data but he may have to think more in terms of collaboration, especially with the stronger manufacturing suppliers (i.e., sharing data on shopping patterns in exchange for support and aid in resources for analysing the data using advanced tools and methods of data science). Aberkohen believes that in the future we will see fewer stores, and smaller ones, due to transition of shoppers to online ordering and direct delivery to their homes or offices (currently online orders account for 12% of sales at Shufersal).

Moreover, the CEO is expecting a considerable expansion in ranges of products the retailer will make available to its customers via online shopping. This will include also orders from overseas (e.g., through partners in the US). He refrains from likening Shufersal to Amazon but is surely getting inspiration from the international online master. It could relate to: (a) A wide variety of products that a retailer can offer on the Internet (besides, Amazon could be getting more deeply engaged in food retailing with the recent pending acquisition of Whole Foods); (b) Employing robotics and humans in logistic centres; and (c) Advanced and dynamic analytics to customise offers to shoppers.

  • The measure of consumer-based brand equity of Globes/Nielsen is based on three key metrics: willingness to recommend, intention to buy tomorrow, and favourability. The top brand of food chain stores is Rami Levi (discount stores). This position may be credited to the personal character and initiative of Mr. Levi and his high media profile (e.g., proclaiming to fight and act for the good of consumers). Shufersal is in the second-best position in the eyes of consumers. The original brand of Bitan is ranked 7th whereas Mega City has fallen down to the ungracious 11th place (one before last).

Shufersal’s own brand currently captures about 20% of total sales. The CEO aims to increase this share to a level of 40%-50% to be in par with similar retail chains overseas. The retailer will have to walk on a thin rope when cutting down purchases of branded products from national manufacturers without ruining relations with them. Shufersal already offers milk, cheese and meat (beef) under its private label (a precedent in Israel), yet the CEO admits they still value and need their relationship with the leading national producer of these food products (Tnuva). In the past Shuferal has also had a bitter battle with another producer of dairy and other food products (Strauss). Other categories in which the retailer markets under its name include baby diapers and milk formulae; the CEO has the full intention to add more product types to this list and expand the shelf space and volume assigned to Shufersal’s own brand. The proposition according to Aberkohen is to bring quality products at value-for-money. Shufersal has taken additional strategic steps in recent years to tighten their control over the display of products in their stores: assigning their own workers to place most products on shelves in-store instead of allowing representatives of suppliers to do so, and bringing-in most products to stores independently from their logistic centres.

The CEO of Shufersal is cognizant that many consumers do not strive to shop in large discount stores that are usually located at the outskirts of cities or in industrial areas. Often enough consumers prefer convenience to lower cost. People who work long hours, including young adults early in their career, and even students, cannot afford the time or pass over the option of shopping in those stores. It may be added that for older consumers (e.g., pensioners), discount stores may simply be out of reach, especially if one does not drive. Supermarkets in shopping malls (so-called ‘anchors’) are also considered by Aberkohen as obsolete. These consumers-shoppers prefer visiting (at least during the week) a supermarket or even a convenience store in their neighbourhood — they are too pressed in time with duties or other engagements to bother about the somewhat higher cost (Mr. Aberkohen brings his own daughter as an example). Nevertheless, if the neighbourhood stores do not work out as a practical option, they will probably order online.

To top the list of the plans of Shufersal’s CEO, he sees the retailer engaged in a variety of peripheral services consumers may like to have at easy reach such as non-banking financial services (e.g., loans), insurance, travel (including holidays abroad), and optometric (eye-glasses). Some of the services are likely to be made available only online (e.g., insurance, travel), next to additional shopping options Shufersal expects to generate. Although Aberkohen does not refer specifically to the mobile channel, it is reasonable that much of what he describes in relation to an online channel is necessarily applicable these days in a mobile channel.

Shufersal’s CEO has high aspirations for the retail company he leads. Aberkohen’s plans may change not only the consumption culture in the country, as he maintains, but also the nature and character of the company itself. Hence, Shufersal’s management will have to watch carefully what areas it is about to enter and how qualified the company is to make those extensions. They will have to consider, for example, how to integrate the business areas of New-Pharm into the portfolio of Shufersal. They should not underestimate the trouble that discount retailers can cause them. Moreover, as Shufersal makes more moves to fortify its retail business, its management must act with sense and sensibility amid tensions that such moves cause, and are likely to continue to cause, with suppliers as well as consumers. The expansion and addition of products and services for the benefit of consumers is a positive venture, but Shfuersal still has to convince them as such, every day.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The major British grocery retailer Tesco is in a crossroad. Strategies that have brought the retail chain success, good reputation, and a leading position do not work as well as in past years. Tesco has been frequently commended for its Clubcard loyalty programme, established in 1996, that implemented an exemplary customer data-driven approach in the realm of relationship marketing; it has put the chain way in advance of all its UK competitors. During the previous decade Tesco also initiated its advanced concept of segmented network of different types of stores for different types of shopping that is continuously growing. Notably, the UK-based company has expanded into more countries and to more types of business, becoming a giant global retail group. But now Tesco finds itself in difficulty. The mission is to find where matters have gone wrong and how to put Tesco back in order.

The recent accounting blunder in which the group over-stated its profits, troubling enough, is truly only a symptom of deeper problems in the management of Tesco, going at least three years back. The profit error in excess of £263m corresponds mainly (£118m) to the first half of the current financial year (2014/15), but it extends to the previous two years, too (following an investigation by Deloitte concluded in October).

  • This error was caused, in the words of departing chairman Broadbent, by “accelerated recognition of commercial income and delayed accrual of costs in the UK food business“(1), referring to incorrect timing of reporting payments made to suppliers (done late) and concessions Tesco received from them due, for example, to promotions given in its stores (done too early). The accounting misstatement may have occurred innocently because of lack of professionalism and a guiding hand in running the company’s finances (Tesco, reportedly, did not have a CFO for a while). In the worse case, it was done to conceal the decline in its business and poor financial performance. Either way, it is evident of underlying faults in the way the company was run in recent years.

The years 1997-2010 have been a significant period of intensive activity and growth at Tesco, led by two successive CEOs, Leahy followed by Clarke. It was a period full of ambition to extend internationally and engage in additional product and service categories, beyond Tesco’s core competence in food and general household retailing. But then Tesco was caught unprepared to cope with the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed, especially since 2010. Tesco under Clarke was late to respond, and continued its expansion “business as usual” despite the evident decline in consumer spending. Time has now come to re-align and to take a more focused approach on those business areas and retailing activities in which the company is more capable to satisfy both its customers and shareholders. The new CEO Dave Lewis, as of August 2014, re-stated that Tesco sees itself as a customer-centric company that intends to continue providing best value to consumers through its pricing, services, and stores. It remains to be seen how the new management keeps true to this commitment.

Tesco’s Stores in the UK

The British retailer distinguishes between different patterns of consumer shopping under different circumstances or for varied purposes; about ten years ago it split its mother-chain into four main types of chain stores. At the core are traditional supermarkets, known as Superstores at Tesco (482 stores as of Oct. ’14). It has added Extra mega-size stores with a much larger range of products and at lower prices for shoppers who want to stock-up their households for longer periods on fewer concentrated shopping trips (248 stores). On the other hand, Tesco developed a Metro type of store (reduced supermarket) to be located in centres of large cities and accommodate the unique needs and time constraints of working shoppers (194 stores). In addition they established a sub-chain of Express stores in a format like convenience stores for really rush trips and smaller baskets for products in immediate shortage — this is in fact the largest sub-chain currently (1,709 stores).

Mainly the three new groups of stores have grown since 2005; all four types account for more than 2,600 stores in the UK (there are some additional 800 stores of other retail-formats). The Express chain stores faced particular resentment from independent merchants because these stores have been established at their expense, by buying them out or by drawing local customers from them in their neighbourhoods (some have resolved the issue by becoming franchisees). However, it apparently was a more correct move to make than creating the Extra stores. To the surmise of Tesco, consumers are less attracted to the mega-store format because they are now less interested in making large purchases on any single shopping trip. Instead, consumers are more inclined to fill-in their stocks for the coming days (e.g., as budget or available cash allows). The advantage of buying at lower prices at Extra stores, as in the chain as a whole, also diminished in face of a challenge from more efficient discount chains like Aldi and Lidl from Germany.

Tesco has several concerns to confront and resolve. Its position is furthermore unfortunate because it is sandwiched between discounters as mentioned above and high-quality, high-status chains such as Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Marks & Spencer. Tesco invested in its own-brands and in prepared as well as fresh meals, and yet it is still not considered in the same class with the high-quality chains. Those chains have a much clearer proposition with regard to product and service quality than Tesco. In addition, analysts argue that Tesco’s stores have become complicated to shop — they are too large, hard to navigate, difficult to find products needed from a selection too broad, and particularly too difficult to find value. (2)

From 1994 until the end of 2005 the market share (MS) of Tesco climbed consistently from 17% to 30%, surpassing in 1995 Sainsbury’s, the leader until that time, and leaving all food and grocery chains far behind. Since 2006 and until the beginning of 2014 Tesco’s MS was essentially stable (30%-32%), then it started to slip below 30%, according to data of Kantar Worldpanel reported by the BBC. Sainsbury’s has kept floating between 15% and 20%. Three challengers are notable — although they are still well below Tesco, they can and do cause trouble for the leader: (a) Morrisons (11% after a steep leap forward from 6% to 10% in 2005); (b) Asda (Wal-Mart’s branch into the UK , 17%, climbed mainly until 2005); Aldi & Lidl (MS grew more slowly from 2% to 4% until end of 2010 and then accelerated in almost four years to 8%). Kamal Ahmed, Business Editor of the BBC, suggests that the position of Tesco has been eroded due to structural changes in retail attributed primarily to online shopping, overall weakening position of the four big chains, and customers who want “smaller daily top-up shopping”. (3)

It seems early to predict if the recent slip in MS is a sign for an ongoing decline, and it depends very much on how Tesco will react. As already indicated by CEO Lewis, Tesco is going to reduce its range of products. It may have to consider the scale of its Express sub-chain, that might got too large. It will have to carefully assess if it can and should compete again hard over price with upcoming discounters or develop and enhance other competitive advantages like shopping-related services and in-store design. Tesco is already in the midst of a project to re-model and improve the layout and design of its stores (“Transforming Our UK Stores”). While part of this work is dedicated to improving their Extra stores, Tesco’s management may want to consider alternative approaches to these stores. For instance, re-arranging the store as a cluster of several autonomous shops under the same roof (e.g., food & grocery; personal care; home improvement & gardening; repairs) which shoppers can visit independently and pay at separate cashiers.

Extended Lines of Business

Tesco has added a variety of services “in a supporting role”, that is, they do not intuitively belong in a food and household merchandise retail business but they may be regarded as facilitating acquisition and fulfilling complementary needs of customers who come to shop at the chain-stores. But even under this flexible definition, Tesco may have reached too far. Consider just the next few examples:

  • Tesco Bank provides, in addition to current accounts, also savings, loans, and credit card services (even car insurance and travel services are available);
  • Tesco Mobile offers mobile telecom service packages and smartphones, and has even introduced its own-brand tablet device “hudl” (generation 2 just launched), acting as a technology company;
  • Tesco operates a network of gas stations for shoppers to fuel their cars;
  • Extending from beauty and cosmetic products for personal care, Tesco is also in the healthcare and pharmacy business, supplying medications, medical devices and NHS-approved services;
  • Internet services (broadband, e-mail & storage) are also available from Tesco.

The top management of Tesco may have to show greater scrutiny not only with regard to the range of product types it displays in its stores (and online) but also those supplementary services and products, finding a correct balance between benefit and value they provide and the burden and complication they cause.

Tesco owns the analytic company Dunnhumby as a subsidiary to perform in-house the important work of analysing purchase and personal data of Clubcard customers, and exploiting new possibilities of Big Data, to produce intelligible insights. Yet, the retailer needs to make sure that Dunnhumby keeps to its original charter. Expanding services to external clients, for instance, could complicate its activities too much, distract the company from fulfilling its vital duties for Tesco, and expose it to unnecessary business risks.

Customer Service —  Tesco is repeatedly criticised that its in-store staff is not available and helpful enough. It has been further argued that over-reliance of the retail chain on automatic self-service scan & pay posts in its stores (instead of human cashiers) signals to customers that the staff tries to avoid contact with them. These customer concerns are worrying especially given the difficulties in shopping at large and product-crowded stores. Problems with customer service may better be resolved in parallel to issues of merchandising as well as store layout and interior design to obtain greater improvement in customer-shopper experience.

Tesco has made great effort to execute an inclusive Brick & Click approach in its retailing business, not to foresake any of the physical and online channels. The retailer furthermore works to keep the channels inter-linked. It established, for example, a Click & Collect service —  to their convenience, customers can make the order online in the morning before work and pick-up the shopping package from a store of their choice (out of 260) on their way home. It is a demonstration of effort in the right direction.

Reaching Internationally — Tesco is operating store chains in twelve countries beyond the UK, either under direct ownership or through franchising and co-operation with local retail chains. Besides nearby Ireland, the group’s overseas reach is mainly into Central and Eastern Europe (e.g., Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, as well as Turkey), and Asia (e.g., India, Thailand, South Korea). A discussion of global operations should take into account economic, cultural and legal considerations with respect to each country. For example, operations in China had to be ceased; they are expected to restart in a new formulation with a local chain. Nonetheless, the venture of Tesco in the US, that lasted between 2007 and 2013, is knowingly the most damaging and embarrassing for the company. Its Fresh & Easy chain of neighbourhood supermarkets on the West Coast was hit by a strong opposition from US-based strong retailers, mainly Wal-Mart and Trader Joe, and in addition its approach was not well accepted by the American consumers. Tesco eventually had to fold out and leave the country.

Vis-à-vis the slip in market share of Tesco in the UK, sales of the retailer at home dropped by 2.6% in first half of FY 2014/15 (Feb.-Aug. ’14) compared with the same period last year. Like-for-Like sales (same-stores, excluding petrol) fell by as much as 4.6%. However, the more alarming outcome for stakeholders and analysts about Tesco has been a decline in profit of 55% in the UK (trading profit for H1 stands at £499m post-correction out of  £23,566m in sales, a margin of 2.3%). (4)

Overall, the sales of Tesco group (£34bn) fell 4.4% and trading profit (£937m) declined 41%.  Both Asia and Europe have seen a fall in sales, though profits in Asia dropped (-17%) and in Europe they increased (+38%). Markedly, Tesco Bank  has enjoyed a rise in both sales (4.6%) and trading profit (16%), to the envy of the retailing business. Analysts doubt that Tesco can overcome and offset these declines by end of the financial year in February 2015. The upcoming Christmas and New Year season is clearly crucial for Tesco. It is also needed as an injection of optimism for its share price that fell from nearly four pounds to £2.50 in the past two years, and then dropped furthermore to just £1.50 in September, recuperating somewhat lately to a little below two pounds.

Undoubtedly Tesco has made positive moves into the 21st century to enhance the consumer shopping experience in its brick-and-mortar stores, establish its presence online, and strengthen endurable relationships with its customers. Yet, improvements it achieved have been swollen in the wave of expansion in different directions, wherever it seemed possible and connected somehow with its main field of business. It is, therefore, ever so important and desirable for Tesco to identify and focus on those areas wherein it is more competent, especially with respect to improving the quality of shopping experiences of individual customers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Tesco Group Interim Results: Financial Performance, H1 2014-15 (26 weeks ended 23/8/14), Press Release 23 Oct., 2014 http://www.tescoplc.com/index.asp?pageid=188&newsid=1074.

(2) Tesco Admits Accounting Missteps; Stock Slides, Stanley Reed, International New-York Times, 23 Sept. 2014

(3) Tesco Share Slumps After Raised Profit Error, BBC News: Business (Online), 23 Oct. 2014 http://www.bbc.com/news/business-29735685

(4) Ibid. 1

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