Super marketing

In the first of a series of reports on consumer products, Hugh Pearman goes shopping and fills his trolley with the best and worst that Tesco has to offer.

The women in the red polyester polka-dot uniforms waved leaflets in my face. I took one. “Tesco Savings – the instant access savings account”, it read. The wheel has come full circle. You used to go to the bank, get out some money, and then go to the shops. Today, the shop and the bank are one and the same. It gives you money, it takes it away again. Somewhere along the line, goods are purchased. What are they like, I wonder?

I had come to the Tesco megastore at Colney Hatch in north London, on a quiet morning. I was shopping for style, you might say, in this most unpromising of locations. For once I was not loading up a trolley for the family. I had no list of vital purchases. I forswore brand loyalty. I was immune to the various deals on offer – bonus points, multibuys, the whole gallimaufry of little devices supermarkets use to lock their customers in – rather than reducing all their prices across the board, which, after all, would be far too simple.

I simply wondered what would strike me as being good to buy. What I put in the basket would be there purely because it appealed. This was a packaging test. And a difficult one. After all, there are around 20 000 products in the average hypermarket, and probably more in Colney Hatch, which is big enough to boast 34 checkouts. To pass the test, the products I selected would have to stand out from the throng as my gaze raked the shelves. I gave myself no time limit – this wasn’t some raffle-winning trolley dash – but then again, nobody can spend too long in those places. More than an hour, and you need psychiatric help. Has there yet been a Brittas-style sitcom based in a megastore? Eavesdrop on the polyester people there, and you hear the script writing itself.

The only constraint I gave myself – beyond ignoring certain sections of the store, such as pharmaceuticals and drink, which I would rather assess in a future article in their own dedicated outlets – was to exclude certain classics. This was on the basis that nobody should need much telling about them: Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup can; the Marmite jar; the Oxo cube; Bird’s custard powder drum; Heinz’s baked beans can and Lea and Perrins’ bottle (I would have added Saxa salt, but unfortunately the once brilliant packaging of this product has been horribly folksified in recent years). Time, and regular, but relatively subtle design tweaking, has proved the merit of all these. So I looked elsewhere.

Tesco has tried like mad to shake off its cheapo image – this store, originally aimed at the purses of the lower orders, was once routinely regarded as inferior to middle-class outlets like Sainsbury’s and Safeway, let alone the rather exclusive Waitrose. Despite its relentless drive up-market, all the PR hype and all the success, it is still haunted by its founder Jack Cohen’s old “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” motto. In recent years it lagged behind Sainsbury’s in store design, only recently latching on to the idea that good architecture might help sales – just as that notion was comprehensively disproved by a profits slide for Sainsbury’s.

Colney Hatch is a typical Tesco of the early-Nineties tithe-barn school, neutral rather than actively awful as most are, and certainly with nothing internally to distract attention from the shelves. Unless, that is, you count some new over-styled trolleys – similar to the Eurostar luggage carts at Waterloo – designed to take special blue plastic reusable boxes you put straight into your car. Everybody pointedly ignored these and struggled with flimsy bags as usual.

One of the main things defining a supermarket’s image is the quality of its own-brand packaging, and Tesco’s is mostly dire. I could find no consistency, even within goods of similar price range, beyond the fact that cheap stuff is designed to look cheap and expensive stuff gets aspirationally tasteful labelling. Fair enough – different income brackets look for different things – but cheap needn’t be nasty, and © expensive doesn’t have to mean greeting-card art.

I loved the first package I saw, but this could be regarded as a cheat. Three peppers – red, yellow and green were encased in a clear cellophane bag – a vegetable traffic light. There’s no graphic design, just intense colours shining through, the minimalist enclosure making the produce look terrific.

I liked, too, the brashness of Tesco’s Value labelling, with its coarse blue stripes. This is a leftover from the recession, when all the supermarket chains scrambled to produce low-cost ranges of basic goods. The Value range is distinctive, rude, and completely at odds with the sophisticated image that Tesco now strives to convey – a memory of Jack Cohen to treasure while it lasts. And it’s a lot better than the ghastly picture-labels on, for instance, Tesco’s own-brand salad dressings, which make you queasy just to look at them.

I admit to one prejudice about labelling. On the whole, I prefer lettering to images, or at any rate I would rather the lettering was the main event. But, for me, an excellent example of the two combining is a can of Italian Callipo tuna. This is expensive – at 1.95 at least three times costlier than a standard tin of the stuff. It claims to contain super-special Mediterranean-dwelling fish, but I doubt it is three times better. The packaging does a good job of convincing you, though. It is bright red with yellow details – so it stands out – but at the same time the design is trad, rather like Golden Syrup, with an acceptable etching of fishing boats.

A nice detail is that they’ve inverted the can so that the ring-pull is on the bottom – that way the design remains pure. The outer cardboard box with identical graphics gives it a presence which, I admit, is strictly unnecessary in packaging terms.

Still in Italy, consider the case of the Filippo Berio olive oil range. The Lucca-based firm’s “special selection” extra virgin brand is a delight – a simple rectangular bottle, with a gold-edged black lettering-only label in a Thirties-modern style – a hit. Other bottles in the range have an Art Nouveau, fin-de-siècle feel, complete with those meaningless, but somehow satisfying gold medals, and those are OK.

But then there is their new Farmhouse unfiltered brand. This is vile, with a horrible little illustration of what is presumably meant to be an old Tuscan farm. The typeface is wrecked, and the bottle is moulded with jelly-like olive shapes. Berio has the best and worst of olive oil bottles. How could they let this happen?

While we’re on lettering devices, let’s hear it for Kraft’s Philadelphia soft cheese packaging. It’s been around for a long time, that big oval logo on the silver foil. No doubt it has been altered from time to time but it’s still superb. I don’t like the stuff inside, but I always want to buy it. Its only rival for me is utterly different: Laughing Cow cheese spread. I love the circular container with its oh-so-French red cartoon bovine – and I love the fiddly little red thread you pull to unseal the pack, and the equivalent red tabs to open each portion. Nobody would ever design anything so mad today.

Or would they? Consider Dairy Crest’s Frijj thick milk shakes, which are pretty new. There is a nice shape to the plastic bottles – an amalgam of curvy milk and Coke-bottle precedents – which is very easy to grip with a surreal cowhide-pattern to the bottle shrink-wrap (in the colours of the relevant flavours) and a brilliant made-up name. Children slaver after these, and I can see why. A boring product has been transformed through packaging.

I have to include a pack of Daz washing powder. Since Omo vanished from the UK market, this has remained the best, most archetypal of its breed, pared down to the absolute eyeball-scorching essentials. (Unlike cereal packs, soap powders tend not to get compromised by gruesome “special offer” banners.)

The last of my “best” selection is a 75p, 1.5kg pack of plain Be-Ro flour. This works despite itself. It looks kind of Thirties, and no doubt this is knowing rather than artless – for sure it is not the original pack design. The front has no fewer than five different lettering types, plus there is a typeface resembling (but not actually) Albertus on the back and sides. It bears the ultimate cliché of a stylised wheatsheaf. And yet it looks innocent and wholesome, the colours are nice, the design as a whole is clear and stands out, and it has that marvellous inherited name. I’ll definitely buy that.

What I won’t buy is a jar of Tesco own-brand pickled red cabbage. Not just because of its dubious contents, but because this is the naffest label I have seen for some time. It’s a clear jar, so the vibrant red cabbage should be its own advertisement. Yet the label – a foggy, dim affair – shows a picture of an unconvincing browny-purple cabbage, like a giant elephant dropping, set against what must be – peering through the fog – some kind of curious upland landscape. Seldom has a product tried so resolutely to remain on the shelf until the merciful release into the oblivion of its sell-by date.

Tesco makes hundreds of millions of pounds of profit every year, and is the undisputed market leader. It has some good-looking things in its stores, but few of those things come from the hands of its own designers. Its product range is virtually identical to all other big supermarket chains, so would it make pots more money if it made a big effort on the design of its own-brand goods? Or is design nothing whatsoever to do with its success, which is instead all to do with being first on the block with new customer inducements? I fear the latter.

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