Monday, September 29, 2008

How to kill a £10K per year relationship

Tesco. Love it or loathe it, if you live in the UK chances are you line their pockets. Big time.

If you do a £100 weekly grocery shop you spend around £5K each year. If you get your petrol there too, you're likely up to £10K - and that's without the occasional bit of electrical, homeware, clothes or even mobile phone or car insurance payments.

So you, as a customer, are clearly very valuable to them indeed. But only for your money.
It seems to me their customer-handling has all but forgotten that the gullet that consumes is attached to a human being.

A friend of mine recently received a polite but threatening letter from Tesco because she had parked in the car park at their aircraft-hangar-of-a-superstore at Barhill, near Cambridge, for more than the time Tesco had calculated it was reasonable to shop (I think their limit was/is 4 hours).

This is a car park that's shared with other retailers, by the way.

Let's think about that for a moment. Tesco used a camera to record her arrival and departure from this car park, a camera with numberplate recognition - and one which is presumably connected to a computer which can both generate nasty automated letters AND find your home address, based only on your registration number, to send the nasty letter to.

Did you know Tesco had the right to your address simply because you choose to drive into their car park? Neither did I.

Ok, so that's shocking enough. But given how hi-tech this process is, and given Tesco's famous clubcard scheme and all the information it records about your shopping habits, then the only excuse for the automation of a snotty letter is pure profit-motivated laziness.

How so? Well, first, let's consider things from Tesco's perspective for a moment. Why do they want to limit your car parking time to 4hrs? Perhaps they have an issue with commuters parking their cars at the superstore and hopping on a bus into Cambridge. It wouldn't surprise me.

So, first of all, the people it should be targeting are those who are NOT coming into the store and ARE repeating the behaviour of parking for entire days, day after day.

Both of these behaviours are discoverable through Tesco's electronic surveillance.

Had the system been written to check for repeat behaviour (that's an IF THEN line even in Basic!) then it would not be writing a snotty letter to my friend. This was the first time she'd ever been there for more than 4 hours.

Had the code been written to query transactions in the store (again, it's a simple IF THEN) then it would also have known she had made two transactions in the store that day, one before lunch and one after. Again - don't send the letter.

My friend was shopping for a kids birthday party, had a break for lunch (in the Tesco restaurant!) and a shop in one or two of the other stores sharing the the same car park. That's how 4+ hours fly by Tesco dudes - at least they do for your 'valuable' customers - ones spending money.

This system would be so easy to put right - even as an automated one.

But here's my suggestion Tesco: Since the average family is spending £10-£15K with you each year - and each one of these sent-in-error automated letters could cost you a customer each time - wouldn't you be wiser employing say, just one customer services advisor to speak human-to-human to those you fear may be abusing your free parking?

A little conversation would soon reveal the true circumstances. And you'd be much more likely to keep your customers.

Every time you send one of these letters without understanding the circumstances you risk losing that customer's £10-£15K a year - for ever.

And they are telling their friends...


  1. Katherine Hannaford9/29/2008 10:07 am

    Wow, thanks for this David - really good to know.

    Also, it's rather scary to see a £100 shop each week equals to £5k for their pockets. I might have to look up the nearest farmers markets, I think.

  2. Particularly bad timing for Tescos when people are evaluating how to save money in the economic downturn.

    And not only is it possible to do cheaper shops at other supermarkets, but farmers markets and farm shops are more accessible than ever, due to the internet.

    I've made a conscious decision to use alternative shops to get the basic staples at the cheapest possible price, and then to spend some of the extra money on quality produce from local suppliers - you really can taste the difference and it's not more expensive than the premium ranges from the supermarkets.

    And I feel far more loyalty to making a purchase directly from a local supplier who is always helpful and informative, than going to the local Tescos. Particularly after I arrived at the small local brand at 3.50pm on a Sunday with my son in a pushchair, having been delayed when he was crying his eyes out and generally upset...

    When I finally got there, the security guard told me I couldn't go in, as they closed at 4pm.

    Despite the fact I'd walked there to get one item.

    The only question is how much abuse does it take for a critical mass of people to do something more proactive than mutter and then return to the scene of the outrage because it's quick and easy for them, rather than making the effort to investigate alternatives.

  3. Richard M Marshall9/29/2008 11:34 am

    I don't shop in Tesco and I'm not trying to defend the indefensible here, but I have to point out that connecting up these systems would be far more than a couple of if/then blocks and would require some significant legal work as well.

    The reason being that the carpark will not be run by Tesco. It'll be run by a subcontractor who will be checking the cars coming in and out. There will be a sign at the site stating the T&C for using the car park which should include the recognition of plates and definitely the 4-hour limit.

    However, for them to link this system to the clubcard you would have to provide explicit opt-in permission because of the Data Protection Act. And that's a bit difficult in a car park.

    Sadly the real villains are the people who would abuse the parking. This is what has driven hospitals to outsource the car parks and turn them into profit centres. This had become so extreme here in Scotland that the government has had to clamp down (pun intended) on parking charges.

  4. Hi all thanks for hted comments. Richard, take your point, but these are choices tesco has made. At the minimum, and with no additional permissions required, it could trace the regularity with which anyone is breaching their parking conditions. If that reveals who to send a letter to, they could also employ a human to contact that person, rather than a computer, to find out if they need threatening, or to learn more about real customers shopping experiences.

  5. There are notices in the Tesco car park in Swansea that refer to checking numberplates with the DVLC, which I find somewhat chilling. Since when was this data available to car park attendants and why?

  6. I'd be interested in seeing how many people have been chastised for taking too long with their shopping.

    And then how many have had the necessary human intervention for abusing disabled or family parking spaces.

  7. Thank goodness this technology isnot being used in South Africa as the parking attendant would call his housebreaking friend to advise that Mrs Jones of XY address is not at home. Take care that your own thieves do not latch onto this one! Harry


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?