Tesco CEO Seeks Transparency Through Blogging, Not Twitter

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Tesco CEO Philip Clarke told the World Retail Congress in London today that the “tectonic plates are shifting” in retail and residual from financial woes in the euro zone is requiring companies to adopt new technologies or lose their competitive edge.

“We are in the first downturn of the digital age,” Clarke stated, adding “consumption is weakening” in China, Thailand and South Korea, regions previously earmarked for growth but reeling from economic turmoil in Europe. “[These economies] are vulnerable to the crisis in the euro zone, as well as inflation caused by high commodity prices.

“Digital technology gives us the opportunity for a warmer, more meaningful conversation with our customers, local communities, our colleagues and the suppliers we work with.” That’s why Clarke, who started as Tesco CEO in March 2011, has just launched a corporate blog, Talking Shop, in an effort to build trust and, as he puts it, “explain what we are thinking and how we see the world.”

He’s not much of a tweeter, though he likes writing bylined op-ed pieces (such as this week’s FT column). So why blog?[more]

“I want this blog to help put Tesco’s people back in focus, to zoom in on our business and examine what we are doing, explain what we are thinking and how we see the world,” Clarke wrote in his debut post. “I want it to discuss some of the challenges of running a business like this with its triumphs and disappointments (hopefully more triumphs than disappointments). We’ll have a whole range of people blogging from the executive team, the stores and out on the road.”

Clarke dipped his toe into the social media waters two years ago and has tweeted about 250 times, but not since Dec. 31st of last year. His company, expecting a drop in global profits for the first time in 20 years, understands that “People trust people, and, after the 2008 banking crisis, they don’t trust organisations.”

That’s why Tesco has just launched an employee training program, ‘Making Moments Matter,’ as proof of the company’s philosophy of “caring about everything, but being obsessive about the customers…about putting customer service at the heart of everything that Tesco does.”

“It is a staff training programme around customer service and that’s what this refers to. It’s not a marketing campaign – it’s an internal phrase,” confirmed a Tesco spokeswoman about the human resource and internal brand engagement initiative to Marketing Magazine. It’s also, as The Grocer notes, about “putting customer service at the heart of everything that Tesco does.”

Store managers from across the country participated in the London conference which highlighted parts of the Making Moments Matter initiative [developed by W+K London] and includes an increase in staff, new uniforms for fruit and vegetable teams and in-store bakeries.

Tesco is also trying to innovate its way back into customers’ hearts, including developing a virtual supermarket powered by technology from British firm Keytree, dubbed ‘Store Trek’ and previously “stymied by lack of computing power in a web browser and slow broadband speeds,” said Tesco.com head of research and development Nick Lansley. “But now, broader bandwidth, adoption of HTML5 and 3D TV portend that “flying through a virtual Tesco store and grabbing 3D products is getting closer,” he added.

While Clarke’s blog won’t be as transparent as that of, say, Virgin’s Twitter-happy Richard Branson, it joins those of fellow supermarket boss Mark Price of rival grocer Waitrose who wrote “The Chubby Grocer” as a year-long stint in 2008, blogging about his own attempts to lose weight, and Asda’s Aisle Spy blog to “take you behind the scenes at Asda,” while Sainsbury’s Views features experts ranging from animal welfare to carbon footprinting.

A recent Twitter campaign from competitor Waitrose, Britain’s upmarket supermarket, shows the perils of social media that keep publicists awake at night. The @waitrose account solicited folks to finish the phrase: “I shop at Waitrose because…” by using the Twitter hashtag #waitrosereasons. Cue the snark and the Twitter ambush campaign!

Brits’ cheeky responses included “I shop at Waitrose because darling, Harrods is just too much of a trek mid-week,” and “Because my butler is having a week off,” and “So people know I’m filthy rich and therefore automatically better than they are.” Not to mention the unicorn food and 24 ct gold loo paper.

Opinion on Twitter was divided on how Waitrose handled it well, but Maxim PR tweeted, reports Ad Age, “Whoever runs the @waitrose account seems to have handled #waitrosereasons pretty well. We’re talking about the brand so it that a success?”

Interestingly, the Tesco blog doesn’t include a comment box. “We had a lively debate about whether comment boxes are the best way to do that,” writes Clarke. “We decided to use social media buttons on every blog entry because they open the conversation up to wider audiences, which comment boxes don’t always do. The box fans die hard, so we may decide to revisit it but for now that’s the way we’re starting out.”

There are, however, 67 “likes” on Clarke’s first blog post. How many of those came from employees vs. actual customers?

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