Checkout the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

In 2022 the May Bank Holiday will be moved to June and an additional day is being added to the list of bank holidays, so that there will be a four-day weekend.  This is all so that there can be a celebration of the Queen being the Queen for 70 years.  Leaving aside various elephants in the room, this will be the first time such a milestone has been reached, though not the first such celebration of this monarch’s monarchical milestones.

The Government has promised four days of events that ‘will mix the best of British ceremonial splendour and pageantry with cutting edge artistic and technological displays’, starting on the 2 June 2022.  We shall see: anyone remember the Diamond Jubilee?

I also wonder if you remember her Silver Jubilee? Depending on your age, God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols might jog a memory? I remember it, though mainly through the lens of hindsight rather than in real-time, but for a very different reason.  June 1977 saw, what is in my view, one of the major turning points in British food retailing history. It was planned for, and took place over, the Jubilee weekend.

Tesco changed direction. And the rest as they say is history.

The Tesco built by Jack Cohen was not in great shape in the mid-1970s.  Riven by infighting in the board room, seemingly strategy less and failing in its competition with Sainsbury’s and others, and wedded to Cohen’s deal with Green Shield stamps, the business was really struggling.  After what was effectively a boardroom coup, ‘Operation Checkout’ was mounted.

The strategic decision was made to offer deep discounts on particular products and to focus on having good prices on other lines, paid for by removing Green Shield Stamps.  This was an attempt to re-focus perceptions on the price and quality offered by Tesco and was in effect a complete re-positioning of the business.  ‘Operation Checkout’ was launched in June 1977 and became the defining point between the old and new Tesco.

All stores were closed on the Saturday (4th June) of the Queen’s Jubilee Holiday weekend.  The windows were whitewashed.  Behind them staff removed the trading stamp publicity and materials and re-signed, re-merchandised and re-priced the store for the new approach. Daisy Hyams, by now a legendary Buying Director, focused on setting new prices for the entire business to attract sales and secure margin. Tesco announced that the stores would re-open on the Wednesday, which pushed competitors into responding with deals and price cuts on TV and other advertising.  However Tesco delayed the opening of the stores for a day (to the 9th June) and launched their own publicity almost without competition.  Closing the stores for this length of time was a remarkable step.

The impact of ‘Operation Checkout’ was remarkable.  Turnover and market share rocketed (7.9% to 10.8% in a month). Consumer loyalty rose in terms of first choice and repeat business.  The repositioning in the consumer’s minds had worked. Tesco had a renewed sense of direction.  The business for the customer was now different. Turnover rose by 36% in a year, though profit fell by 3%.

The relaunch was thus vindicated though not without trauma and consequence. The impact of ‘Operation Checkout’ was fundamental for what it told Leslie Porter and Ian MacLaurin about Tesco. The surge in volume was so great that the systems broke down. Stores could not get products, deliveries were taking days to be unloaded and advertising was focusing on products that stores could not stock. MacLaurin commented that for the first time they realised Tesco were in the distribution as well as the retail business. This recognition saw them totally reorganise supply chain operations in the coming years, to a point where they were world leading in efficiency. Despite a number of small store closures in the early 1970s the stores themselves were still too small and variable to meet the new demand, and they were often in poor locations. Throughout the business there was recognition that there was no control and understanding of what was really going on across the store base.

There was a break with the past, but if not followed through then the change would not be sustainable. The radical restructuring of the business from Checkout in 1977 into the 1980s (centralisation, superstores and all that) would set the groundworks for the dominant chain Tesco become in the 1990s and beyond. It all began though, with Operation Checkout over the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend.

I wonder if any retailer today will be as bold as to shut down for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 to set a new direction? Some could perhaps do worse.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
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6 Responses to Checkout the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

  1. Lovely bit of alliteration in this post but let me move swiftly on to jam. I do indeed remember the Tesco relaunch because ,it may not have been right at the beginning but,Tesco started stocking Tiptree James and preserves. This was much commented on as being A VERY BAD MOVE FOR TIPTREE. The rationale for this was that Tiptree was upmarket whereas Tesco was not. However that was the whole point for Tesco . By taking on such a range it signalled their new direction to the consumer and general public.
    Which brings me to Alan Bennett and his mother. Bennett tells his Mother’s shock of reading about a man charged with flashing outside Sainsbury’s. “Tesco you could understand” she said,”But Sainsbury’s oh no.” And so we have the whole social strata of retailing laid out.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    Thanks Iain, nice stories.

  3. Tarlok Teji says:

    I recall it clearly one of the hottest summers for some time. I was still at University but continued to work for International Stores (part of BAT group at the time) in branches across London. The full trolley customers evaporated and were now shopping at the Tesco in the high street nearby. Soon after green shield stamps were introduced and prices went up! International Stores are no more and Tesco as you have succinctly summarised set the path towards market place dominance.

  4. Tarlok Teji says:

    Leigh Happy New Year, just revisiting this post. Your blog readers may be interested to note that Operation Checkout was written as chapter 11 in David Powell’s ‘interview style’ book, Counter Revolution : the Tesco Story. I have just re-read chapters 10-12 and they provide a useful reflection on the changing retail dynamics at that time.

  5. Pingback: 2022: the year in retrospect | Stirlingretail

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