I turned on the radio this morning to catch the tail end of a story about Tesco’s triumphant entry into Beijing, hot on the trail of Walmart and Carrefour. No surprise there. The interesting thing is that the Beijing store is so, well, Chinese. But that is not a surprise either. Tesco is a very wily beast, and as we have discovered on our travels across Eastern Europe, it becomes a kind of retailing chameleon when it moves out of the UK.
Definitely not Tesco, but the wily chameleon knows how to sell this stuff indoors.
Take the new store in Prague. ‘Not like any Tesco I’ve ever seen,’ said Ray as we ventured into what used to be Maj, the department store pride of Communist Czechoslovakia. Or so he gleaned from the Time Out guide book. Interestingly, the BBC reporter used almost exactly the same words in Beijing this morning astonished to see an array of produce he simply didn’t recognise. He thought he had found a bottle of HP brown sauce until the interpeter told him it was more likely Hoi Sin.
Likewise in Prague. According to Time Out, Maj was bought by K-mart who sold it to Tesco but shades of the communist department store linger especially on the ground floor which is an extraordinary hotch potch of different stalls. We scaled most of the four storey building (there are two entire floors devoted to cut price Cherokee clothing for men and women) before discovering something closer to the supermarket we know so well in the basement. But with that interesting difference: the Czech store sells mainly Czech goods. Or at least distinctly East European produce.
We found a small selection of the universal food-miles brands (the kind the clever Mr Leahy promises we can boycott if we prefer carbon-lite), but the busiest part of the store by far is the area selling fresh meat, chickens with heads and feet, fish, cheese and local fruit and veg. The kind of stuff Czech people buy in markets and local shops.
I know, our Tesco down the road also claims to be supporting Scottish produce but just imagine what the store would look like if they really supported local suppliers on the same scale as they obviously do in Beijing, Prague and (I believe) Budapest too. They would be indoor versions of the Farmers’ Market that comes once a week to Edinburgh’s Castle Terrace.
Perhaps there would even be a way of doing that without undermining the renaissance of farmers’ markets. Tesco is incredibly clever at providing what people want (and persuading us to buy what we don’t need). So clever it looks like the Competition Commission enquiry into the impact of supermarkets on local shops will probably decide that the answer lies with consumers. And consumers have already driven away from the high street to the supposed convenience of shops with big carparks on the edge of town. If we really want to shop this way it is up to us to persuade the supermarkets that we want local food at realistic prices which do not cripple local suppliers.
Even so, I hope rising energy prices will help us opt for real markets and local shops. The one thing all supermarkets have in common – whether they are in Beijing or Broughton – is the deadly stupor that hangs over the check out queue. Looking at the expressions of weary resignation as Czech shoppers lined up to pay for their mostly Czech purchases on a hot autumn afternoon I wondered how we can persuade ourselves this is ‘convenient’.
With poetic irony we combined our trip to Tesco with a visit to the Museum of Communism: a shrewd venture by a very entrepreneurial American, ‘Little Glen’, who has also brought bagels and a jazz bar to the centre of Prague. There is a telling punch line to the museum’s story of the failure of the Prague Spring revolution of 1968. When communism closed in again for the next two decades, party leaders allowed enough fruits of Western capitalism into the market to subdue revolutionary tendencies. Tesco, welcome to Beijing?