Tesco's impact in Kent as the supermarket celebrates 100 years

As one of the largest retailers in the world, Tesco has become part of the British scenery.

As the supermarket giant turns 100, it finds itself at a turning point like never seen before in its history, as its market share is squeezed from disruptive discounters like Aldi and Lidl.

Here in Kent, Tesco stores have come and gone and thousands of people have been and continue to be employed by the retail giant.

Tesco customers. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA
Tesco customers. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA

One of the early stores to open in Kent was at the county's first shopping centre.

The Tufton Centre in Ashford was opened 1975 and later became County Square.

The same year, the centre opened a Tesco Home and Wear store.

Other stores followed and people were soon popping into Tesco shops more and more to get their weekly groceries.

The Tufton Centre in 1975, showing the opening day of the Tesco Home and Wear store, in Ashford
The Tufton Centre in 1975, showing the opening day of the Tesco Home and Wear store, in Ashford

Yet the supermarket's relationship with Kent has also been peppered controversies - and misfortune.

Tragedy hit the store at Rainham Shopping Centre in 1994 when a fire broke out.

The blaze at the end of September damaged a large part of the store's roof, however it was later repaired and the store remains open today.

In fact there have been several fires at stores in the county including a blaze behind the Tesco Express in Loose Road Maidstone in September 2016.

Shoppers were evacuated from the store as result of the smoke and the flames which had impacted on the outside external wall of the store.

In March 2017 there was an arson attack at a store in Ashford.

The badly damaged Tesco Express store in Mill Court, Ashford
The badly damaged Tesco Express store in Mill Court, Ashford

Police appealed for witnesses after the store was gutted by the fire.

More than 20 firefighters were called to the store near the Mace Lane roundabout which was closed for months while the building was repaired.

A year later, no one had been arrested in connection with the attack.

In September 2018 there was also a blaze at a Tesco store in Sea Street, Herne Bay.

Site of the old Tesco distribution centre in Knight Road, Strood
Site of the old Tesco distribution centre in Knight Road, Strood

Tesco's relationship with Kent has also been littered with controversies.

Nearly 10 years ago in Strood the site of an old distribution centre for the retail was replaced by a new mail sorting centre which was later built on its former site in Knight Road.

Elsewhere in the town, Tesco were planning to re-develop its Cuxton Road store and turn it into a superstore.

But between 2013 and 2015, the project was among dozens scrapped by the retailer following a downturn in profits.

Tesco previously had plans to use the plot to expand and redevelop its Strood store, which would have seen it treble in size.

It is thought the site may now be turned into a storage facility.

Over in Dartford, Tesco was going to build a big store in Lowfield Street in 2001 after land earmarked for regeneration was bought by the supermarket giant.

However, after 11 years of pressure from the council to build the £80 million 86,000sq ft supermarket, they backed out of the project and sold the land to a private investor, Meyer Homes in 2015.

The investor is now developing the site and building 548 modern-styled apartments, shops, a café and a new brewery quarter, named after the former Dartford Brewery Co Ltd, which use to trade on the site.

The Tesco store in Gillingham was also expanded and turned into a Tesco Extra in 2011 and became a 24-hour store. In 2016 the store applied to expand further.

The water tower was repainted in 2011 after the Tesco store at Bowaters Roundabout, Gillingham, was refurbished.
The water tower was repainted in 2011 after the Tesco store at Bowaters Roundabout, Gillingham, was refurbished.

At the beginning of 2018, Tesco said it would cut about 800 jobs at its largest stores, including several in Kent.

The supermarket was going to remove 1,700 management positions nationally and replace them with 900 new roles in a bid to give managers “more direct accountability”.

In January this year, Tesco announced it was slashing thousands of jobs as part of a major shake-up of in-store departments.

But what really set Tesco apart from the pack was its ability to watch, predict, and adapt to consumer behaviour.

Cut-price products boomed at times of economic recession, while executives responded to prosperity with the release of the Tesco Finest range, creating a breed of loyal patrons which shopped the chain to success.

A Tesco distribution centre. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
A Tesco distribution centre. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Tesco's now so huge that its success seems almost pre-destined, but it took 60 long years to make it to the top and has spent the last 40 fighting to stay there.

Tesco's early years are a tale of rags-to-riches graft, then more common in America than the UK.

Jack Cohen was born in modest circumstances in London's East End, a small, Jewish boy who struggled at school.

In 1917, he enlisted, surviving the sinking of HMS Osmanieh and being struck with malaria.

Jack Cohen during the First World War. Picture: Tesco/PA
Jack Cohen during the First World War. Picture: Tesco/PA

In 1919, with no job, few qualifications and no social security, he spent his demob money on a pack of army surplus groceries, and headed to Hackney Market to sell them from a barrow.

It was not quite a case of the rest is history; it was a decade before he opened his first shop, and nearly four until the first supermarket.

Cohen lived hand-to-mouth for a while, surviving on his wits and apparently enjoying it.

He soon started selling his first trademarked product - tea shipped by a Mr TE Stockwell.

He merged the initials of his supplier with the first two letters of his surname, and just like that, Tesco was born.

An early Tesco tea lorry. Picture: Tesco/PA
An early Tesco tea lorry. Picture: Tesco/PA

Times were hard though, and market-sellers like Cohen had to be resourceful.

He sold whatever he could salvage, and worked out sandpapering the rust on tins of fruit allowed them to retail as new.

After marrying in 1924, he invested the wedding gift money into wholesale.

By 1929, the still new-ish Tesco had drummed up enough funds to set up a store in Edgware.

Roughly about 7,000 would follow.

As the 30s dawned, Tesco gained assistant buyers, a lawyer and an accountant, and cemented its place as a respectable business growing at an eye-watering rate.

Cohen, who worked liked a Trojan, was said to have expressed himself almost too regularly, and made tie pins bearing the acronym YCDBSOYA ('you can't do business sitting on your ****'), which he would distribute to everyone he met.

He began stacking his products, rather than selling them in bundles - the famous 'pile it high and sell it cheap' philosophy which became the title of of his 1972 biography.

An early Tesco store. Picture: Tesco/PA
An early Tesco store. Picture: Tesco/PA

Family excursions mixed business with pleasure, as Cohen scouted out new neighbourhoods and properties.

When the Second World War was declared, Tesco was running 100 shops, and the policy of bulk-buying proved useful on the introduction of rationing.

The now-wealthy Cohen retained his East End manner and felt snubbed by high society, driving his hunger for ever greater success.

In 1947, a watershed moment: Tesco floated on the stock market at 25p a share.

From there, Tesco's history reads like a who's who of UK retail innovation.

In the late 1940s, profits suddenly dropped off a cliff.

Cohen blamed rising commodity prices, wages and overheads - and the company responded with one of its most telling masterstrokes.

"Self service" - customers browsing the aisles themselves, rather than queuing at the shopkeeper's counter - may seem obvious today, but to post-war shoppers, it was a revelation.

(Technically, two Co-op stores had beaten Tesco to the punch, but Cohen was only too happy to take credit at parties.)

A willing empire-builder, Tesco picked off competitors as much as it did vacant shopfronts.

The 1950s became the 1960s, and, stop us if you've heard this one before, Tesco expanded.

The 1970s brought more innovation - most notably the move into petrol stations - but ended on a note of sadness, when Jack Cohen died in 1979.

A Tesco petrol station. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA
A Tesco petrol station. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA

He left the company in good hands, and the 1980s and 1990s were arguably Tesco's golden years.

The company launched its biggest takeover to date - a £220 million buyout of rival supermarket Hillards - and launched the now-iconic slogan 'Every Little Helps'.

In the mid-90s, Tesco finally overtook Sainsbury's to become the UK's largest retailer.

Then, Sir Terry Leahy - or 'Terry Tesco', as he was known - entered the scene.

Born on a Merseyside council estate, he joined the company at the age of 23, working his way up to chief executive in 1997.

During a previous stint as marketing director, he was widely credited with the riotous success of the Clubcard, and as chief executive, pushed expansion through America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

At home, Tesco stores began to morph in size and function, from monstrous out-of-town retail parks, to fun-sized urban convenience stores.

Yet again, business exploded. One popular statistic claimed that £1 in every £7 spent on the British high street passed through Terry's tills.

When he finally handed in his key card in 2011, Tesco was the third largest retailer in the world.

David Lewis is now cheif executive of Tesco, stands next to a new Jack's store at the launch of the brand in September last year. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA
David Lewis is now cheif executive of Tesco, stands next to a new Jack's store at the launch of the brand in September last year. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA

Shortly after, however, Tesco's recent troubles began.

Just a month after Sir Terry's departure, a Tesco Express was trashed by protesters in Bristol, apparently afraid the sheer power of the brand would cannibalise the local economy.

The incident set the tone for a stormier patch in Tesco's history.

After ceding ground to a resurgent and competitively-priced Asda, in 2012, Tesco posted their first drop in profits in almost 20 years.

The decline continued with snowballing profit warnings, a public spat with supplier L'Oreal, and in 2014, the unfortunate revelation that Tesco had overestimated its half-yearly profits by £250 million.

Profits are now recovering, but Tesco's biggest problem remains the parsimony of the shoppers that originally carried it to stardom.

Over the years, Tesco has adapted and re-adapted to stay ahead of customers' wants and needs, and the chain still boasts the lion's share of the market.

Last year saw the launch of Jack's - a new range of stores channelling their founder's mission statement by beating the lowest prices of their of rivals.

Few would bet against Tesco pulling it out of the bag once again.

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