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Dave pops into Tesco

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Dave Cameron in Beijing today (photos from Tesco's China website: click on image to view)

If you find yourself in Beijing with just 48 hours to take in the sights you've been dreaming of visiting ever since you discovered China in Boy's Own, then where to go?  The Great Wall?  According to a Chinese proverb you can't call yourself a man until you've been there, so how could you not.  Tiananmen?  A must.  Peking University?  Big tick.  The Great Hall of the People?  Rude not to if your hosts are throwing a banquet in your honour.  Tesco?  First port of call of course.  Dave was so eager to browse the aisles, in fact, that he was driven directly from the airport to the "Happy Valley" store in Chaoyang district. 

  Not surprisingly, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco’s Executive Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs, who is one of the trade delegates to accompany Dave was "...absolutely thrilled to welcome the Prime Minister to Tesco in China”. 

  It wouldn't have taken Dave long to realise, though, that not many of the products on the shelves were "made in Britain".  Some products would have been more conspicuous by their absence than others.  I wonder if he had  as I have done more than a few times  searched for Walkers' cheese & onion crisps only to discover that the only premium brand of crisps on sale is Lays... a fine crisp of course, but not in the same league as good old Walkers' C&E. 

  Unfortunately for British exporters, the store's 40,000 customers per week don't go there looking for the "Best of British", such as Norfolk's Binham Blue (which, by the way, is the best cheese in the world... in my view at least).  The reason they go there of course is that Tesco has built its success in China on giving people what they know and like at hard-to-better prices.

  So successful has Tesco become that they now employ more than 23 thousand people on the Chinese mainland, and are within weeks away of opening their 100th store here.  Not a bad achievement considering they opened their first store just 6 years ago.  And, according to Ms Neville-Rolfe, "..There’s plenty more to come":  US$3 billion more over the next five years according to news reports.  

  The company clearly has its sights set on closing the gap between itself and Carrefour, whose 2009 sales (according to Euromonitor, a research company) reached 33 billion RMB... three times that of the British late-comer, but still a long way behind the 45 billion RMB amassed by Walmart, the number one international brand in the category, which opened its first shop on the mainland in 1996 (click here to view Walmart's Chinese website).

  Increasingly, though, the revenue that Tesco accumulates from its 4.5 million weekly transactions (versus, btw, 20 million in the UK, where it is number one), although impressive, understates its achievements here.  That's because the company has begun to invest heavily in "lifespace malls".  The first one of which opened in Qingdao, in Shandong province, in January, with reportedly 50,000 people flocking to the opening event.  Tesco operates a store within these malls and rents the rest of the space to cinemas, restaurants and other retailers.

  The biggest Tesco "lifespace mall" was opened in Qinhuangdao in Hebei province in February. Bloomberg reported in September that this "400,000-square foot (37,161 square-meter) mall... attracted a quarter of million visitors" since it opened and, like me, couldn't resist adding that the "store [within the mall] features grocery products displayed with a 'market' atmosphere as employees call out the price of live crabs in ice buckets..."  The next time I'm in Qinhuangdao I'll make sure I take in the vibe, as well as reporting back to you what the Tesco crabs are like. 

  Talking of crabs, I wonder if someone at the British embassy has taken the fast train (under two hours) to Qinhuangdao to buy several buckets-full for the embassy bash in honour of Dave and his entourage (4 ministers, several academics, and more than 40 captains of industry  the largest British trade delegation to visit China for centuries apparently). 

  No doubt that the Qinhuangdao Bo Sea crabs – reputed to be among the sweetest in China will taste even sweeter after word gets round that they have come from Tesco.  


Tesco's Chinese website